Todd Nelson named head coach of Griffins

As a former defenseman, Todd Nelson's experience and expertise should help the Wings sort out a glut of prospects knocking on the door to the NHL.

Bruce Fedyck

The ink was barely dry on his new coach’s contract when Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland acknowledged the most important work in a busy offseason was only half done.

He had just promoted Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill to replace Mike Babcock behind the Detroit bench after Babcock resigned the position to take over in Toronto. Now he had a hole to fill in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s top minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League. And given the Wings’ emphasis on player development, the importance of this decision could not be overstated.

"It’s huge," Holland said at the time. "We’ve got to find the right guy for that job."

The right guy turned out to be Todd Nelson, 46, a former Griffins defenseman and assistant coach who finished this season as the interim coach of the Edmonton Oilers. He left Edmonton when the Oilers hired former Wings assistant Todd McLellan to run their bench.

This is a critical time in Grand Rapids, where prized prospects Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha are just cutting their teeth in professional hockey. The Wings are desperately hoping some of their young players like these and others already in Detroit will step in as the careers of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg wind down.

And as a former defenseman, Nelson’s experience and expertise should help the Wings sort out a glut of prospects knocking on the door to the NHL, including: Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet, both of whom had strong auditions in Detroit this season; Brian Lashoff, who started the season in Detroit and finished strong in Grand Rapids; and Nick Jensen, a fleet and gritty right-hand shot the Wings need.

Blashill knows Nelson very well and has a high regard for him, and the Wings are hoping the two can establish a relationship similar to the one Blashill had with Babcock. Those two talked an average of five times a week, a rapport that built a bridge that carried more than half the Wings’ roster from Grand Rapids to Detroit in the last few seasons.

Nelson, a native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, becomes the 10th head coach in Griffins’ franchise history. He started last season in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons before being promoted to Edmonton to replace the fired Dallas Eakins. Oklahoma City was 15-6-2-2 and in first place in the AHL’s West Division, when he was called to Edmonton.

Nelson began his full-time coaching career as an assistant with the Griffins in 2002-03, helping the team reach the Western Conference Finals of the Calder Cup tournament. After that year, he moved to the United Hockey League’s Muskegon Fury as head coach and captured cups in each of his first two seasons.

He returned to the AHL from 2006-08 as an assistant with the Chicago Wolves, helping them win the Calder Cup in 2008 before leaving to become an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers for two seasons. He spent the last five seasons with Oklahoma City.

A fourth-round selection by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Nelson played just three regular-season and four playoff games with the Penguins and Washington between 1991-94. He spent the bulk of his playing career in the minors — and really made his impact in Grand Rapids.

Nelson was the first player ever signed to a Griffins’ contract on July 24, 1996, prior to the team’s inaugural season. He was a member of the Griffins 1999-2000 team that reached the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup Finals. His 236 games played with the Griffins rank 19th all time and sixth among defensemen.

Following Danton Cole, Nelson becomes the second former Griffins player to be employed as head coach in Grand Rapids.