EDMONTON — Dallas Eakins has been pro hockey’s so-called ‘hot date’ for obvious reasons and when Oilers GM Craig MacTavish interviewed the man who would become the Oilers’ fifth head coach in six seasons, he must have felt he was speed-dating himself.
The 46-year-old Eakins is bright, witty, charismatic. He commands a room with ease, speaks in sound bites. He is, as MacTavish noted, unflappable under pressure. Like MacTavish, it is easy to imagine Eakins tearing a strip off a player, if required.
Eakins’ values include an insistence on fitness, work ethic, attention to detail and doing all the little things nobody likes to do, but produce winning hockey (think of MacTavish teaching the Oilers — all the Oilers — how to block shots).
Eakins holds players accountable, gets in their kitchen, as they say. And he’s all about winning. His won-lost record of 157-114-4 in four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League farm club is powerful evidence that he walks his smooth, authoritative talk.
Well, those attributes all were part of MacTavish’s considerable tool kit as the Oilers head coach from 2000-09.
No wonder the dating, oops, interview process, which began with the former Toronto Marlies coach being a top candidate to be the associate coach to Ralph Krueger, swiftly moved to a different level, not to mention led to Krueger’s dismissal.
Did MacTavish hire his surrogate? Did he recognize a kindred coaching spirit and take the plunge?
“Well, obviously, because of the fact that we’re here today, I had a really good feel for the way those discussions went,” MacTavish told a news conference Monday afternoon. “Really, almost instantly, I had that type of intuition.”
Eakins, a marginal defenceman in his 120-game, eight-team NHL career, is a coaching disciple of the late Roger Neilson. He also cited former Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice as a key influence.
He dubbed himself a “hybrid,” having played in “about 800 cities” across the minor leagues, absorbing information from a lengthy list of respected coaches.
A healthy scratch many nights in his NHL days, Eakins said he wasn’t just “sitting upstairs eating popcorn, I was taking notes.”
It is obvious that Eakins has, in a profound way, done his homework, paid his dues to earn an NHL shot. Now he has it.
MacTavish spoke on the weekend of “philosophical differences” with Krueger leading to his dismissal. But listening to Eakins, it’s more likely MacTavish accelerated the courtship of Eakins owing to the obvious similarities in outlook, demeanour and approach.
Well, that and MacTavish’s sense that some NHL team was going to hire Eakins as a head coach, and it might as well be the Oilers, since the affinity was so powerful.
That might or might not have been true. Vancouver passed on Eakins, after all, despite multiple interviews. The New York Rangers apparently had him complete a questionnaire. An interview pending with the Dallas Stars never came off because MacTavish signed Eakins so quickly.
The hot coaching commodity changes, year over year. But whether it’s Guy Boucher, ex of Tampa Bay, Jon Cooper, Boucher’s replacement in Tampa, or Eakins, the NHL anoints someone as the ‘it’ guy everybody wants.
Eakins was that man the last year or two and he said all the right things as he said hello to Edmonton.
“This isn’t about winning one game, or winning one season,” he said. “This is about putting a foundation in place, that we bring this organization back, that they’re in the mix to win every year.
“That takes a little bit of time and it takes a whole lot of commitment. So what we’re going to do here with this team is we’re going to be committed to character.
“We’re going to be committed to a high fitness level. We’re going to be committed to the details of tactical hockey. But, foremost, the No. 1 thing we’re going to be committed to is competition. This team is going to compete.
“If you’re going to play for the Edmonton Oilers, you are going to compete, no matter if you’re a first-line guy, the sixth defenceman, the 23rd man on the roster or a player playing in the minors.”
Eakins said he coaches 23-27 players, not a team. He believes in treating them alike with respect to work ethic and discipline, but differently when it comes to motivation, inspiration and personal goals.
“The way you coach players now is you get them one-on-one, you grab them for lunch, you hit them at the coffee machine,” said Eakins. “It’s small-group meetings, it’s one-on-one meetings and it’s constant, it’s every day.”
None of the above is a departure from Krueger’s. Fitness also was a centrepiece for the fired coach.
On the issue of the makeup of the team he will coach, the type of hockey he wants the Oilers to play Eakins said, wisely, it will depend on the roster. Which is, far and away, the real issue with the Oilers, not coaching.
“In a perfect world, I want to be able to push the pace as high as we can, not only with our speed and our skill, but our fitness level,” said Eakins who, a minute or two later, also threw physicality into that mix.
In a perfect world, between now and October, MacTavish will fill gaping voids at the goaltender position, on defence and on the third and fourth lines. A gritty power forward or two will be added to the top six mix in that perfect world.
The roster, as is, does not have the ability to push anything or anyone with its physicality, as was glaringly apparent in lopsided late-season losses to Los Angeles, Anaheim and Vancouver.
A new GM has every right to install his own head coach, surrogate or not, and Eakins impresses as highly competent, a strong fit.
But, like Krueger, Tom Renney, Pat Quinn and, yes, MacTavish before him, Eakins needs better players to work with for the results to change appreciably.
It’s as simple as that.
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