John MacKinnon: Now awaits the execution of Oilers coach Dallas Eakins’ plan for success
EDMONTON - First-year head coach Dallas Eakins trots through life to his own double-time cadence, and carrying his own clean slate, which is precisely how the Oilers want it.
This being Edmonton, a sort of hockey Brigadoon where the 1980s glory days live forever, Oilers Standard Time can take over, which is understandable.
On Monday, for example, while the all-business Eakins put his club through its final full practice before Tuesday’s home opener, there were his bosses, GM Craig MacTavish and president Kevin Lowe watching from the stands, alongside Mark Messier.
It’s one thing — and an astute move at that — for Eakins to move photos of the ’80s icons out of the team’s locker-room and onto the Rexall Place concourse, to redecorate the locker-room walls with images of the players of today.
But when yesterday’s heroes often populate the halls, when two of them remain key club executives, you wonder how completely Eakins, or any head coach, can or will install a new mentality.
Messier, as Jim Matheson writes about elsewhere in this section, gave his seal of approval to the choice of veteran defenceman but first-year Oiler Andrew Ference as team captain.
On the ‘clean slate’ front, though, the 46-year-old Eakins already has won some players over, Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky at the head of that list.
The two veteran wingers, with left winger-turned centre Taylor Hall, arguably form the Oilers top line, making them Exhibits A and B that Eakins is true to his word about evaluating players on performance in the here and now, not on past performance or reputation.
Both Smyth and Hall had good camps and the coach rewarded them with plum assignments, at least to start things off.
“I think that was important for the guys,” said Hemsky, who was removed from the trading block not long before training camp opened. “We have a different coach, a different mentality.
“It’s like a fresh start, I feel like that.”
So, as he has said often during the training, does Smyth, which is saying something as he preps to start a full NHL season for the 18th time in his career.
“It’s pretty fun, said the 37-year-old Smyth, who skated with former Oilers’ tough guy Louie DeBrusk and speedy Todd Marchant at that first opening night, back in 1995.
Is an opening night still fun?
“Absolutely,” Smyth said. “The adrenalin gets going and the excitement is there again.
“It brings you back to how you felt as a kid again. There are a lot of kids in this room, so hopefully I can be a part of it and jump in on it.”
His coach certainly thinks so.
“I don’t know what’s gone on in the past — I did ask a few questions,” Eakins said. “It’s back to that clean slate mentality.
“Play well and you play more, that’s the way it goes. So far in camp, he’s kept the pace. He’s been a good linemate for Taylor and Hemsky.
“We’ll keep him there.”
Eakins also lives by the “who’s going” dictum during games, so the trios will change, depending on how the players are performing that night.
“But (Smyth) has been good for me, so far. He’s done everything we’ve asked. And there’s a whole bunch of guys like that.”
One player like that, and yet a little unlike the others is first-year player Anton Belov, and not because at six-foot-four, 212-pounds, the resident of Omsk, Russia is the club’s biggest defenceman.
Belov played for Avangard of Russia’s KHL for the last five seasons, taking a substantial pay cut to sign with the Oilers and test himself against the best in the NHL.
“I wait (for) this day a long time,” said the soft-spoken Belov. “And (tonight) my dream comes a little bit closer, I can touch it.
“From the first day, everybody makes me feel welcome. This is a very comfortable atmosphere, I don’t need anything.
“I think I need to work hard everyday and show to the coach that he make a good choice.”
Belov is paired with stay-at-home defenceman Nick Schultz for opening night, a shutdown unit, by all appearances. Meanwhile, offensive defenceman Justin Schultz will play with Ference, while Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid, partners much of last season, are partners still.
Three of the six defencemen are new, and if they consistently fill up the coach’s clean slate with sound, efficient defensive-zone work, Eakins will be pleased, even with his high standards.
Even though there are eight new faces in the Oilers opening night lineup, the growth area for this team is going to be the incumbents dialing up their defensive responsibilities, buying into Eakins’ system, playing the proverbial ‘200-foot game,’ not merely relying on their elite-level skill to carry the day.
How they grade out at playing a complete game of hockey is something that will play out over the course of the season.
Tonight, as Smyth said, is about feeling like a kid again. It’s opening night.
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