John MacKinnon: Edmonton Oilers coach sees progress as team heads into Olympic break
Dallas Eakins says players ‘making strides on a number of levels’ in transition to defence-first mindset
NEWARK, N.J. — Dallas Eakins is going to get on his bicycle during the Olympic break and get pedalling.
That’s not a metaphor for the Oilers rookie head coach, whose 29th-place team has been spinning its wheels much of the 2013-14 season. That will be his main recreational activity next week as the NHL stands down for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“I’ll be hammering my bike every day,” said Eakins, who will head to Scottsdale, Ariz. to join his wife and two young daughters for a well-earned break.
Call it active recovery, as fitness devotees like Eakins do. Even hitting the break on the upswing, having won five of their last six games as the puck dropped Friday night, the Oilers can use respite as much as any team in the league. Probably more.
There will be 22 games left this season when hostilities resume on Feb. 27 at Rexall Place, as the Oilers open a five-game homestand against the Minnesota Wild. Time now to take a breath.
Early this season, as the Oilers faceplanted from the gate — they lost 12 of their first 15 games, including 10 in regulation — Eakins pointedly said: “I knew this was going to be a messy renovation; I didn’t think it was going to be this messy.”
And where would Eakins situate his young, talented team at this juncture?
“I think we’re making strides on a number of levels,” Eakins said. “I think the best way to put it, for me ... back in early November, I was frustrated, I was mad. But that’s part of the getting to know your group.
“Sometimes, it takes longer to get to know the individual personnel and the group than just a few weeks at training camp.
“Where at least I am mentally, I firmly know where we need to get better. I know exactly how we have to play to secure a playoff spot in this (Western) conference. I one-hundred per cent know where we need to go.”
Getting there is the issue, and a huge part of the journey, as any casual fan knows, involves the players buying into taking care of defensive responsibilities first before trying to dazzle with their evident offensive skill.
“The one thing I’ve found, even as a player and then more importantly as a coach, is when you go to offensive-minded players and start talking about defence, they suddenly think you’re trying to take something away from them,” said Eakins, who assembled a line of No. 1 overall picks Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012) against both the Rangers on Thursday night and again against the Devils. “Where you’re actually trying to give them a gift.
“When we don’t have the puck, we want to get it back as fast as we can, so we can have the puck and use their skill. Our guys are understanding that.”
That includes Yakupov, who has been a healthy scratch five times this season when, partly as a reinforcement that the message needs to be heard and acted upon. Indeed, assembling that line of first overall picks is Eakins’s way of demonstrating a measure of trust in his young talents to do some heavy lifting before dancing on offence.
Eakins can sense the message taking hold and can see his team — partly thanks to the work of goalies Ilya Bryzgalov and Ben Scrivens, as well as defence-first add-ons Mark Fraser on defence and Matt Hendricks up front — tightening up their play.
Eakins believes he knows his group better now, which is normal, and that the process, as coaches call it, is trending in the right direction.
“I think I’m more settled and a little bit more free on where we’re at right now,” Eakins said. “And, as much as I hate where we’re at in the standings, and I absolutely hate what our fans have had to go through, I am encouraged looking forward.”
For one thing, the team culture, always a fluid dynamic, is changing for the better in Eakins’ estimation, with the new additions.
“Well, it’s changed it greatly because the guys we’ve acquired are singing from the same (songbook) of the game that we’re trying to employ here,” Eakins said. “Hendricks comes in, Fraser comes in, Scrivens comes in, these guys are of very high character.
“They want to play the defence game first. Scrivens has just come from an organization (Los Angeles) that’s all about defence first. We’ve added a little bit of toughness, we’ve added some guys who want to play the defence-first game and are preaching that.
“It’s important to have those voices in your room, especially good veteran guys like Hendricks. He has played well, he has taken on a role here. Scrivens has played extremely well, and Fraser has come in and he’s hard to play against.
“Especially for Scrivens and Fraser (pending unrestricted free agents), these guys are looking to win contracts, they’re looking for opportunity. And Hendricks has come in and been great. He’s a voice, he understands he’s a veteran guy and he hasn’t come in quietly.
“That’s what I love about veteran guys like that. They know it’s their duty to come in and almost be a secondary coach a little bit and to pass on their knowledge to younger players.”
Coming out of the break, Eakins will hold what amounts to a mini-camp to revisit fitness levels for his players and tweak the club’s system play, particularly the puck retrieval component. And to re-emphasize the defence-first mantra he is relentless about.
“That message is never going to go away, it’s an important one,” Eakins said. “Teams that are keeping the puck out of their net are the ones that are winning hockey games. “We’re trying to morph this team into a team that’s going to use their skill greatly, but be a defence-first minded team.”
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