MacKinnon: Eakins looking for an all-out effort from players
Oilers have shown the expected competitive fire and style of play at times
EDMONTON - As a rookie head coach with a special NHL franchise, Dallas Eakins is going to have to tell his personal story repeatedly on his first circuit around the league.
He gave the Reader’s Digest version to a New Jersey-based reporter Monday, and it included the following: “I like the juice of it. You know, the juice is going right now and we’ve lost two games; people are pissed off. And I like that, I love it.”
By “juice,” Eakins meant the buzz of coaching in a hockey market, the energy, the passion of the fans who have been noticeably cranky in Edmonton with their team off to an 0-2 start and looking sloppy and decidedly un-juiced in the process.
Eakins wants his team to play with plenty of juice, night after night, without exception. He reckons the technical details will come; the commitment to the cause can be there all the time.
If a player doesn’t demonstrate sufficient energy and intensity, he might well find himself in the press box, as 37-year-old veteran Ryan Smyth did Monday night. It was a tough thing to accept for a proud player who had a good training camp and began the season on the putative top line with Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky.
As Eakins expected, Smyth took the tough news like a professional. Smyth fully gets Eakins’ point about effort being available every night, even if the breaks and offensive success are not. He also knows the team must begin to play Eakins’ system consistently and soon.
“You can explain away (that) a team beat you (thoroughly) and you just got outworked,” Smyth said. “What you can’t explain are the mistakes that keep happening over and over again.
“When that happens, it creeps in and you’ve got to diminish it. We’re a team in here that has got a new coaching staff. It’s a matter of adapting to the system quickly and adapting to each other.
“But we’ve got some horses in here who know how to win. That’s the bottom line. There’s winning and there’s misery and we’ve got to find ways to win right now.”
So far — and it’s early days — the Oilers have displayed an inexplicable lack of competitive fire and a tendency to revert to sloppy habits, especially in the defensive zone.
Eakins will use what any good teacher uses to correct these issues: repetition, show-and-tell, benchings, punishment, whatever it takes for the message to take hold in the minds, muscle memory and behaviour patterns of his players.
Eakins has literally plastered his key message on the walls of the Oilers’ locker-room. “I am never out of the fight!” blares a larger-than-life poster, the words printed under the Oilers logo. “I will persevere and thrive on adversity. My team expects me to be physically tougher and mentally stronger than my opponents ... I will never quit!”
Which sounds ominously like the lines mean-spirited teachers made students write on the blackboard after school, back in the day. But maybe the Oilers need this reminder. In the team’s first two games, it’s safe to say they weren’t living that motivational message.
They didn’t start off any better on Monday night, falling behind 2-0 to the New Jersey Devils before the first period was 10 minutes old. For whatever reason — slow learners? -- the Oilers weren’t playing with any more snap than they had in losing to the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks.
“It’s not really that hard,” Taylor Hall said of Eakins’ new system. “We know our system and we trust it.
“I think everyone is on the same page. Last game (6-2 loss to Vancouver), it was just a matter of (not) competing hard. We didn’t win battles, we didn’t make plays and they did.
“In the first game, we played well. We just made a couple mistakes at the end and it cost us. It’s funny how people can turn on you and the outside world can think of you in a different way. But we win one game tonight and everything is back to normal.”
Eakins remains unruffled. So far. He reckons the grasp of the system will come. So will the intensity, or else.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the fan base thinks of you and holds you in such high esteem. You have to compete, you have to have results,” he said. “And if you’re not, then you’re going to be held accountable.”
What Eakins has seen is a “flash of ‘Oh, there it is, that’s what we want,’ and then we get six flashes of their past.” Eakins wants 60 minutes of the current system, or at least of all-out effort.
“It’s never an off-night for me, when it comes to your compete,” said Eakins, turning that verb into a noun in the grammatical horror common to hockey people. “If you’re competing hard and things aren’t going your way, that’s when you’re OK with it.”
The Oilers players, Eakins says, have put themselves in a box. They have demonstrated swatches of both the style of play the new coach wants and the level of competitiveness he demands.
“The problem is they’re not doing it every shift that they go out there. So they’ve really screwed themselves.”
They can do it, Eakins said, the new behaviour just hasn’t become an embedded habit.
“The way you get it done is you use everything you can,” Eakins said. “There’s the employment of having different voices go at them.
“Maybe it’s their teammate or the assistant coaches. There’s a firm kick in the butt. There’s a pulling back of ice time. There’s embarrassing them in a video session. It’s whatever it takes.”
That will involve finding what makes each player tick, what buttons to press. And, as with Eakins telling and re-telling his own story in his first NHL go-round, it will involve plenty of rinse and repeat.
“It’s just not as easy as going in and saying, ‘Hey, everyone, we need to compete harder.’ A lot of people in here (media room) have kids. It’s the same thing. You’re trying to instil values in them and bring them up the right way.
“When you tell them, ‘Hey, can you pick up your clothes and put them in the laundry hamper?’ Very rarely do you have to tell them once.”
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