Since Nelson took the reins from transition coach/general manager Craig MacTavish in December, the Oilers are 7-6-2. They won a total of seven of their first 31 games under Dallas Eakins.
"I think the structure of our game's improved," alternate captain Matt Hendricks said Friday. "I think individually we've all been playing a little bit better, the team's been playing better."
On Saturday night, the Oilers open a six-game, 10-day road trip Saturday at the Toronto Maple Leafs. The playoffs have been out of reach for a while, but Nelson has two more months to try to build a foundation for the future.
Through 20 games behind the bench (15 on his own and five with MacTavish), Nelson has already seen signs of progress.
"Every day we go out in practice, we stress tempo and execution and compete," Nelson said. "All we can do is just keep on working at it. It has been getting better, though."
Execution wasn't the Oilers' strong suit, especially early in the season. Mistakes would compound on themselves and one-goal losses snowballed to create what captain Andrew Ference called a "frustrating environment."
With Nelson in charge, the Oilers aren't all of a sudden contenders, but they're taking steps toward playing the right way. It starts in practice.
"The drills he's using, he's putting us in situations where we have to work hard, we have to skate hard," Hendricks said. "We can't slow practice down to make plays easier. Subsequently, all that's transferring to the game where now all of a sudden the game, not that it's easy, but the plays and things that happen in the game, the decision-making has become a little bit easier and a little bit more fluent."
Nelson previously was the coach of Edmonton's AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, and Hendricks said everything players heard from there was positive about the 45-year-old from Prince Albert, Sask. Forward Boyd Gordon said Nelson reminds him a bit of Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who's considered one of the better coaches in the NHL.
"Wants you to play a hard, north-south, simple game but work hard, and if you've got a chance take it, but if not, manage the puck," Gordon said of Nelson's style. "That's what we need to do if we want to win."
Note — Injured forwards Taylor Hall and Benoit Pouliot did not skate Friday. Nelson said the first step was to get the players on the ice for practice before either could get back into game action.
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