John MacKinnon: Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins teaches atop recent successes
Young team still learning how to play the 200-foot game
EDMONTON - Whether it’s Olympic men’s team head coach Mike Babcock, a national junior team representative or, in his own fashion, Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins, you can’t go two strides without hearing a reference, direct or oblique, to the importance of the 200-foot game in hockey.
Players won’t be going to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia unless they are demonstrably proficient at it. Same thing for the Under-20 players invited Monday to the national world junior team’s selection camp.
Defenceman Darnell Nurse, a highly regarded Oilers prospect, for instance, was left off the list. Team Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski suggested that Nurse, who plays for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, has been trying to do too much, rather than keeping his game simple — up and down the ice.
So, you can overdo it, apparently.
The Oilers themselves, fresh off an impressive comeback overtime victory over the Dallas Stars, their fifth victory in seven matches, continue to learn how to play the 200-foot game.
The returns have been positive lately, which is good. There’s nothing like a little positive reinforcement to enhance the learning process, especially with young people.
On Monday, following two brief tune-up sessions with the first and second power play units, Eakins talked about that process, about the importance of being “in the battle,” let alone winning it. He liked the way the Oilers gutted out a victory in Dallas, the way they hung around and found the proverbial way to win.
Early in the season, in tough times, “We’d kind of go in and half-fight for the puck,” Eakins said. “I think (assistant coach) Keith Acton said it best: ‘You’ve got to treat that puck like it’s your wallet, like they’re trying to take your wallet right now.’
“Well, you’re certainly going to fight somebody for your wallet. We’ve got to fight the same way for the puck. Again, baby steps. (We’re) not near where we need to be, but getting better.”
With the Oilers, the tease is the obvious offensive mastery the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, David Perron, Ales Hemsky et al display during stretches of four-on-four play.
The Oilers dazzled in overtime in Dallas, for example, and would have ended things before the shootout, absent the heroic goaltending by Kari Lehtonen.
“If we get open ice and we’re playing four-on-four, we’re dangerous,” Eakins said. “When we get to overtimes, our guys are going, or on four-on-fours during the game. Our team is good with a lot of open ice.”
Eakins might quibble about the shot frequency, whether it’s four-on-four, five-on-five or on the power play. But that’s the thing about having won five of the last seven — issues like shooting the puck seem more like quibbling, like fine-tuning.
“I still would like us to be a group that is constantly in those mid-30s, I think that’s a good spot to get to,” said Eakins, whose charges recorded 33 shots against Dallas. “But you could go through every rush, every power play and find places where you could shoot the puck more.
“It’s something that we continue to encourage. But the one thing about our group is they’re more pass-first guys. They’re excellent passers.
“These guys can find people off the back of the net, make seam passes. It’s not their first inclination to shoot and it’s one of those habits that we’re trying to add to their bag ... that ‘hey, we’re going to shoot the puck first and look for second chances.’”
That means more of the old staple of getting pucks and bodies to the opposing net, which is not lost on Nugent-Hopkins, for one. So, on a line that includes Hall and Eberle, who draws the short straw and goes to the net?
“I think that’s got to be everybody, at some point,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I try to get to the net, I think both the other two try to get to the net, as much as possible.
“But we’ve got to make a conscious effort to do that, sometimes. We talked about it a little bit (Sunday), that we were working the cycle play really well, but then we weren’t getting pucks on net and we weren’t getting guys going there.
“You’ve got to pick your opportunities, but you have to make sure you get there.”
Former baseball manager Joe Torre believed the time to get after his players was when things were going well, not badly.
On Monday, following a road trip in which the club collected four of a possible six points, it was time for more teaching by Eakins, in a focused sort of way.
He had the club’s first and second power play units on the ice, one at a time, in an effort to “reset them” after a “bit of a hiccup” on the road. The Oilers are two-for-20 on the power play the last four games, including a one-for-13 drought on the road trip.
“We ran our breakouts that we normally run, with a bit more detail on where we we’re going to be,” Eakins said. “And then (in the offensive zone), we went right to the basics of the power play, the very basics of it.
“I encouraged them to move the puck a little bit quicker. They were in the right spots and, boy, did it look good five-on-0.”
More baby steps, more teaching. It’s a process.
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