Eakins ready to make NHL mark as Oilers' new coach
Dallas Eakins played in parts of 10 NHL seasons for eight different teams.
Most of his stops amounted to brief cups of coffee, a handful of games here, a few more there. Then it was back down to the American Hockey League or the now defunct International Hockey League, where he played in nearly a dozen additional cities over the course of his career.
A defenseman, Eakins dressed for 120 NHL games and probably watched hundreds more from press boxes around the League as a healthy scratch. All the while, though, a post-playing career was taking shape.
"I wasn't just sitting upstairs eating popcorn," Eakins said Monday. "I was taking notes."
Ultimately, it would lead to Eakins becoming an assistant coach, first with the AHL's Toronto Marlies then with their parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eakins returned to the Marlies as coach in 2009 and led the team to 157 wins in four seasons, as well as a trip to the 2012 Calder Cup Final.
Monday, the 46-year-old found himself in the brightest spotlight of his NHL career when he was named the new coach of the Edmonton Oilers. In accepting the job, he fulfilled the prophecy of one of the League's great innovators and the coach Eakins credited as his greatest influence, the late Roger Neilson.
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"Roger Neilson told me on many occasions my mark in the NHL would be made as a coach, because I wasn't a very good player," said Eakins, who also mentioned Paul Maurice, Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan and Ron Wilson among the coaches who impacted him during his playing days and his fledgling career behind the bench.
"Go down the list, every one of them, I watched things and I've shook my head and gone, 'That does not work,' and I've nodded my head and taken note of what does. I guess I'm a little bit of a hybrid. There are a lot of pieces there."
The Oilers have a lot of pieces themselves, in terms of young talent they are trying to assemble into an annual Stanley Cup contender. After holding the No. 1 pick in three consecutive drafts and adding forwards Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, there was high hope the franchise might end a six-year playoff drought in 2012-13, but Edmonton finished 12th in the Western Conference under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.
Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish started the process that led to Eakins' hire looking to add an associate coach to his staff, but realized after an initial meeting that lasted four hours he was talking to head-coach material. After further discussions over the next several days, MacTavish decided to make a change and fired Krueger on Saturday.
"During the course of that meeting, I felt right away in listening to Dallas that his skill set would be better served in a primary role with our coaching staff than a secondary role," MacTavish said. "I ruled out any chance of us obtaining him for a secondary position. He had too much polish and pedigree to not land one of the open NHL jobs available."
MacTavish, who went head-to-head against Eakins during the 2011-12 season as coach of the AHL's Chicago Wolves, was already impressed by his ability to prepare his teams and to identify with young players.
"I'm extremely confident in this man's ability to lead our hockey club," MacTavish said.
Eakins' main task will involve getting the Oilers to take that next step and return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 team -- coached by MacTavish -- advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Final as an eighth seed. They lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, and Eakins follows Quinn, Tom Renney and Krueger as successors to MacTavish.
"In pro sports, winning is the bottom line," Eakins said. "From this moment forward, everything that we do will have that final product in mind. What we're going to do here is put a plan in place to maximize our full potential. This is about putting a foundation a place.
"We want to be in the mix every year to win. That takes a little bit of time and a whole lot of commitment. We're going to be committed to character, a high fitness level, details to tactical hockey, but foremost, the No. 1 thing we're going to be committed to is competition.
"Whether you're the sixth defensemen or the 23rd man on the roster, you are going to compete to play on this hockey team -- and that's how you win hockey games, and that's my commitment to make this happen."
Eakins, who didn't arrive in Edmonton with his wife Ingrid and family until earlier Monday, said determining the rest of his coaching staff is among the assessments he will have to make moving forward. Assistant coaches Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith remain on staff; Eakins could choose to retain them or go in his own direction, and he said it's likely the Oilers will look to fill the associate coach position for which he originally thought he was interviewing.
"One of those things when you come into an organization, you don't know if the video guy's the best guy or if he's subpar. Kelly and Steve might be two of the best assistants in the League -- I don't know. I've got to get to know them and see how that's going to go," Eakins said. "Right now everything stays status quo. I've got a ton of things to get to here, but those concerns are at the top of the list."
Though this will be Eakins' first stint coaching in the NHL, he said he doesn't feel pressure to change anything about his approach -- at least not at first.
"I have my routine that I think works," he said. "I'll come in here and see if it does work, and that's part of being a leader. I have to go with what I know until it doesn't work, and then I have to be open to change.
"Players are going to be the same -- they're hockey players. I'll get to know them and move forward. There may be some big adjustments for the players with me coming in here. I am somebody that firmly believes that if you're talented, just being talented is not enough. I want players to be so fit that a forward, if I ask him to play 26 minutes in a game, he's going to play 26 minutes at a high level."
Appearing self-assured throughout Monday's press conference, it was evident what Eakins' mentor saw in him many years ago.
"I've worked hard at this trade and it's something that's come naturally," Eakins said. "I knew Roger was right that I knew coaching was in my blood, and maybe I should have started it much earlier."