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Eakins anxious for second chance, ready to prove himself as Ducks coach

Believes tough approach, lack of familiarity with organization led to difficult tenure with Oilers

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Dallas Eakins is certain he's going to be a better NHL coach his second time around. 

The 52-year-old was hired as coach of the Anaheim Ducks on June 17 after coaching their American Hockey League affiliate in San Diego the past four seasons. He replaces general manager Bob Murray, who coached the Ducks for the remainder of the 2018-19 season after Randy Carlyle was fired Feb. 10. 

It's the ultimate second chance for Eakins, who failed in his first job as an NHL coach, going 36-63-14 with the Edmonton Oilers from 2013-14.

 

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But Eakins, an optimist by nature, believes what happened in Edmonton will make him a better coach now. 

"Why?" Eakins said. "I've coached in the NHL before. I took some notes while I was there. This time I know my management. I know a lot of these players. I coached some, and the ones I haven't coached I've experienced them in training camps.

"Of course I'll be different now. You take on a new look at how to play. I've experienced different organizations and different coaches. I've always had a growth mindset."

Being familiar with the organization and players is the complete opposite of the situation Eakins had when the Oilers hired him. 

Back then he was a sought-after, emerging coach who had helped build a strong culture and program in four seasons with Toronto of the AHL. 

But the former defenseman, who played 120 NHL games during 10 seasons for the Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Calgary Flames, says he never felt quite comfortable in Edmonton.  

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He was without any foundational relationships, including in the dressing room. He realizes it was a mistake to try to bypass that step in an attempt to make the Oilers change in a hurry. Eakins' my-way-or-the-highway plan only led to a mess.

One of his biggest miscues was the implementation of an involved defensive scheme that led to frequent whiteboard teaching -- and the resulting standing around by players -- during practices.

He also had the pingpong table removed from the dressing room, believing it to be a distraction and, in the process, alienated some players who saw it as a team-bonding experience.

Most importantly, the Oilers went 29-44-9 in his first season and were the NHL's worst defensive team during Eakins' tenure, allowing 370 goals in his 113 games, 20 more than the next closest team in that span, the Islanders. 

"It's easy to say and sometimes harder to do but it comes with maturity as a coach to just be yourself because there's no use trying to be anybody else," Eakins said. "Doing things that are out of your own character or values usually (doesn't) go well."

Given another chance, Eakins feels much better about where he is now. 

"[Since] I was hired [by the Ducks], I've felt at home every day," Eakins said. "This is coming naturally, whereas the other one felt unnatural, and it's nothing against that organization or the city. There are lots of fabulous people there, but I felt like a foreigner there.

"But the biggest thing ... that's going to be different is that when I took on my first NHL job, I started from scratch. This time, it's amazing how humbling it is to get to coach in this league but this time I get to start from experience."

Being fired in Edmonton on Dec. 15, 2014 after a tumultuous stint had the potential to sabotage a coaching career. But Eakins refused to quit and said he bounced back quickly, thanks to a rigid self-examination of where things went wrong.

He also said Brian Burke, who was the general manager of the Maple Leafs from 2008-13 and his boss when he coached Toronto of the AHL, and Murray were key hockey people in a varied support group that included his wife, Ingrid, and his two young daughters, after the Oilers dismissed him.

Murray chose Eakins to coach the new San Diego AHL franchise six months after he was fired in Edmonton. 

Their relationship extends back to when Eakins was playing for the Atlanta Thrashers' minor-league affiliate in Chicago and Murray was a pro scout who made regular scouting trips to look at prospects on the team. He respected how Eakins mentored younger players like Braydon Coburn and Garnet Exelby. Later their paths crossed when Eakins was the coach in Toronto (AHL) and was regularly sending players to the NHL, a feat Eakins would repeat upon taking over San Diego, going 154-95-15-8 in his four seasons.

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"Dallas is an outstanding head coach who has worked well with our players since joining the organization four years ago," Murray said. "He is a tremendous leader and strategist and deserves this opportunity."

The Ducks (35-37-10) finished 10 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference last season, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

They bought out the contract of veteran forward Corey Perry on June 19. Veteran center Ryan Kesler is unlikely to play this season after hip surgery May 9. 

Anaheim began introducing younger talent into the lineup last season. Forwards Sam Steel, Max Jones and Troy Terry are each 21 and each split time between the Ducks and San Diego.

Steel had 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 22 games with the Ducks last season, Jones had five points (two goals, three assists) in 30 games and Terry had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 32 games.

"Some people think we're just going to put all those young players in the lineup," Eakins said. "But those players who were in San Diego... hopefully those spots are going to be very hard to earn because we're a competitive team."

When Eakins looks ahead to the season, his optimism is sparked by the people that will surround him.

Assistants Mark Morrison and Marty Wilford were in place when he was hired. Murray has added former Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, and Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter as an advisor to the coaching staff.

Eakins said he's going to avoid big promises too soon. His focus, he said, will be trying to find the right blend of urgency and patience.

"I know the two words are opposites but it's the truth," Eakins said. "There has to be urgency every day in your habits and urgency in the games but there has to be a level of patience, especially when you're taking over a new group." 

He is well-versed in his own past missteps but those who know him believe that there's little chance he'll repeat them.

"He's going to be in so much stronger a position than he was going back into that room, having had great success in San Diego and having worked in player development," said Jets coach Paul Maurice, who had Eakins on his staff when he coached the Maple Leafs from 2006-08. "I think he's got many more experiences in his toolbox and he's going to be great."

Photo courtesy of Debora Robinson - Anaheim Ducks

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