When it comes down to it, Mike Eaves enjoyed just about everything about getting back into the pro ranks this year when he became head coach of the Cleveland Monsters.
Again -- just about everything.
"The only part I didn't enjoy was riding the bus and getting home at 5 in the morning!" the energetic head of the Blue Jackets' top farm team said Monday night after the American Hockey League officially called an end to its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. "I couldn't find a comfortable position in that chair."
Other than that, though, Eaves was a happy camper returning to pro coaching after 17 straight seasons in college, where he won a national title at the University of Wisconsin and helped put a new arena in motion at St. Olaf College.
The up-and-down nature of pro coaching couldn't even bring him down, such as the fact his roster was in a constant state of flux thanks to injuries on both his team and with the big club.
Eventually, those injuries and callups added up to the point the Monsters, who got off to a 8-3-0-1 start, would end the season last in the AHL's eight-team North Division with a 24-31-5-2 record. For large chunks of the season, it felt like half of Cleveland's roster was either on the shelf or with the Blue Jackets -- only two players, defensemen Dillon Simpson and Doyle Somerby, played at least 60 of the 62 games -- and there was even a game or two when Eaves couldn't field a full roster of 18 skaters.
Eaves said the team was "fighting tooth and nail" to get back in the AHL playoff race when the season was paused, but in many ways, the Monsters' victories this year came at the NHL level where a full dozen of the team's mainstays were called up to contribute to the CBJ cause throughout the season.
"You know what was fun?" he said. "It was exciting to tune into the Blue Jackets games because we had more of an emotional connection to the guys. We knew them, we worked with them, we were pulling for them. The games became a lot more exciting for us. You're always interested in how the parent club is doing, but when you have some of your guys there and you've gotten to know them and everybody on our staff had a hand in working with them on a day-to-day basis, you want them to have success.
"For the most part, I think they did. They felt good about their efforts. The feedback they got from Torts and the staff, they had to work on X, Y, and Z, but they did A, B and C well and kept it going."
So how did such players as Nathan Gerbe, Kevin Stenlund, Stefan Matteau and Andrew Peeke become key pieces of the Blue Jackets' lineup in the midst of a playoff battle?
Throughout the year, much of the credit was given to the decision to play the same systems and use the same terminology at both the NHL and AHL levels, streamlining things for players who were moving up and down between the two levels. Eaves came to the team's development camp in June and met with John Tortorella and his assistants to make sure he was teaching the same things as the Jackets' staff.
"The feedback we got from the guys was the transition was more comfortable," Eaves said. "They still had to get used to the pace and the skill and everything else, but they didn't have to worry about the systems play. We thought we could help ourselves by doing that. We wanted to at least try that and see if that would work out, and that seemed to work pretty well."
A lot more goes into it than just similar systems, however. Eaves was quick to credit the Blue Jackets' scouting staff and front office for their ability to find talent, pointing out the hot red-hot start to the season for the Monsters was in part because the Jackets had assembled a team that could win at the AHL level.
Eaves, a veteran of eight NHL seasons as a player and six more as an assistant coach, also said he worked well with his assistants throughout the season, as the youth and relatability of Steve McCarthy (39 years old) and Trent Vogelhuber (31) meshed well with the 63-year-old head coach's experience and enthusiasm.
"They are the exact perfect guys, if you could have picked anybody as players and said that guy will be a great coach, those were the guys," Blue Jackets director of player personnel Chris Clark, who serves as the Monsters' GM, said of Vogelhuber and McCarthy. "Vogy, from day one when I met him in Springfield, I said he's going to make an unbelievable coach. He was a coach's dream as a player.
"It's the same with Mac. Mac was at the end of his career when he came with us (as a player in Cleveland in 2016-17) but he knew what his place was when he got here and he was a mentor to some of the younger defensemen. He's done a great job and then transitioned seamlessly. Both of those guys, they didn't have to change anything they did from player to coach because those guys took to them right away."
Count Tortorella as one person who was impressed with the staff in Cleveland and how it was able to deliver players ready to step in and contribute at the NHL level.
"Eaves is gonna push," Tortorella said midway through the season. "He's gonna coach. He's gonna ask you to get to a level that sometimes you feel uncomfortable being at, and that's what I respect about him. He's a hockey guy and that whole staff down there have just done a terrific job."
On the year for the Monsters, Matteau and rookie Trey Fix-Wolansky led the way by tying with 12 goals on the season, with the rookie Fix-Wolansky adding 14 assists for 26 points in just 43 games as he fought injury.
Defenseman Adam Clendening had another excellent season, finishing with team-best marks of 34 assists and 41 points, while forwards Ryan MacInnis (7-23-30 in 45 games), Matteau (12-16-28 in 50 games), Calvin Thurkauf (9-17-26 in 53 games) and Gerbe (8-17-25 in 30 games) also chipped in offensively while seeing time with Columbus. In net, Veini Vehvilainen led the way with 10 wins and a 2.76 goals-against average.
While the individual efforts did not add up to playoff standing in the AHL, they did allow the Blue Jackets to stay in the race at the NHL level. For Eaves, that fact helped make the trials and tribulations of his first year at the Monsters helm worth it.
"One of our goals as an American Hockey League franchise is what are you trying to do to help the big club?" he said. "You want to help guys get ready so if they do get the opportunity, they can be successful. From a development standpoint, we felt that the staff in Cleveland helped the guys go up and have some success, so that part is good."