When Mike Eaves stepped behind the bench at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, he was in for a sharp learning curve.
Part of that came from having to learn the playing styles of his new charges, as the first-year Cleveland Monsters coach said he is coming into the job with a clean slate with all of his potential players, some of whom are skating in the annual tournament.
Part of it was simply because Eaves is still putting faces to names -- even as he stands behind a bench where the nameplates scream out at him.
"I was worried about getting names right, so I was making up nicknames on the bench. I didn't want to mispronounce their name," Eaves said with his trademark laugh, which comes easily. "It was good. They were fun on the bench. There was good interaction. It was fun to be on the bench with the coaching staff to get that going and see how we interact. It was all positive."
While the Traverse City roster is a mishmash of players who will play with Columbus, Cleveland, in Europe and in junior hockey this upcoming season, Eaves is the man in charge as he heads into skippering the AHL team this upcoming season.
There's plenty of help - many of the organization's decision makers headed up to Traverse City, and director of player personnel Chris Clark and European development coach Jarkko Ruutu have been among those to step behind the bench so far along with Eaves and his Monsters staff - but this is the first chance for Eaves to get back into pro coaching after spending the past 17 years at the college level.
Before that, though, Eaves was a pro assistant, both with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers as well as Hershey of the AHL from 1991-93. While the laughs come quickly in a conversation with Eaves, his practices are high-energy, intense and demanding, and his booming voice echoes throughout the rink.
"Mike has a great energy, you can see it right away," said Nikita Korostelev, a forward who spent most of last season with the Monsters. "It was great to meet him. He talked to everybody, shook everybody's hands. Great guy so far, great energy like I said, and he knows what he's doing behind the bench."
While it seems like the transition from college to pro will take some getting used to, it might be easier than it is on face value. Working with the Monsters is about development, just as it was at the University of Wisconsin and St. Olaf College where Eaves previously worked, and the players are in the same age group as well.
"When I took the job and I looked at the roster of last year's team and what we could have, 80 percent of our guys were between 22 and 26," he said. "My seniors last year at St. Olaf were 24 and 25. It's the same group. So it's been 30 years since I coached in this league in Hershey and it's changed. That's probably the biggest chance I see is that aspect. It's truly a development league."
You can't miss Egor Sokolov as he skates with the Blue Jackets in the tournament for the second year in a row.
At 6-foot-4, the free agent invite certainly stands out. But he's also made people notice him over the first two games for his goal-scoring exploits.
A year after scoring 30 goals for Cape Breton of the QMJHL, he has a pair of goals for the Blue Jackets in the first two games. Both came on excellent shots, as he isn't afraid to put the puck on net, and he beat the goalie clean on each of his two tallies thus far.
For Sokolov, it has been nice to score, and even better that his first tally in the game vs. the Rangers on Friday came against longtime KHL goalie Igor Shesterkin.
"It's a good feeling when you score in a game like that, especially against a goalie who played in the KHL the past four years," Sokolo said. "That was exciting. I have literally watched him play in KHL games when I was growing up in Russia."
Sokolov was born in Yekaterinaburg and played for Traktor Chelyabinsk's youth teams before coming over to Cape Breton in 2017-18. The 19-year-old is undrafted but has shown a nose for the net in the Q. and he says he keeps getting better as he plays more and more hockey in North America.
He'll have to keep improving with the Eagles on his skating, the usual place someone of his height must improve, but he hopes with improvement will come a shot to make it at the pro level. Experiences like the prospects camp can help him show what he needs to do to make it.
"You come in here after QMJHL camp and it's way quicker and you have no time and you have to make the decisions when you don't even have the puck yet," he said. "It's helped me a lot. I think my game is getting to the next level after those games."
When it came to picking leaders for the weekend of action, the Blue Jackets had some choices to make.
In the end, defenseman Andrew Peeke -- who was named Notre Dame's captain a year ago as a junior over both older and more experienced options -- was chosen to wear the "C" for the weekend. He's assisted by Alexandre Texier and Derek Barach.
Of course, most CBJ fans know Texier for his goal-scoring exploits after he late arrival in North America last year, including five in seven games with AHL Cleveland and two in the Game 4 win over Tampa Bay. Barach, meanwhile, was late-season addition to the Monsters, where the 24-year-old from Mercyhurst had seven goals in the last 15 games.
"We talked as a group," Eaves said. "I know Chris Clark, we talked about it and settled on guys where they have been in that role in other places. Mr. Peeke had been a captain and the other guys had some good experience in that role, so it was a pretty easy talk and decision to make."