Dallas Eakins has never been a head coach in the NHL. That’s the risk the Edmonton Oilers took when they hired him in June to replace Ralph Krueger.
At least, that’s one of the risks. Every hiring comes with its share of potential pitfalls. But that’s the one that got the most attention — especially since Krueger had never been a head coach in the NHL when he was given the job the previous summer.
Eakins, a former NHL player who spent most of his pro career in the minors, was most recently the bench boss of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Originally, it was reported he was interviewing with the Oilers for a job as an associate coach on Krueger’s staff. However, upon meeting, Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish felt Eakins would be “better served in a primary role.” So out went Krueger, who failed to get the Oilers into the playoffs in 2013, marking the seventh straight missed postseason for the club.
Known as a stickler for fitness, as Nazem Kadri found out in Toronto, Eakins provided a warning of sorts at his introductory press conference in Edmonton.
“I think there may be some big adjustments for the players, with me coming in here,” Eakins said.
“I want players to be so fit that a forward, if I ask him to play 26 minutes that night, he’s going to play 26 minutes at a high level. If we’re in a Stanley Cup playoff game and we’re in quadruple overtime, he will still be firing on all cylinders.
“That is something that I’m passionate about that will be probably a bit of a challenge on the buy-in. But it’s non-negotiable, and there will be buy-in.”
But Eakins isn’t some old-school drill sergeant; on the contrary, his views on how to motivate players are decidedly new school.
“The way you coach players now is you get them one on one,” he said. “You’ve got to know them inside out.”
According to Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, Eakins is about a lot more than just fitness.
“He’ll talk your ear off about conditioning but it’s a smokescreen,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to demand things of the Oiler players they’ve never done before and they’re going to find it quite difficult. Quite frankly some of the players are out of the barn but he’ll gather them all back in. He’s going to say things that make the players squeamish but he’s going to be one of the best things you’ve had there. He’s tough.”
The Oilers — stocked with three first overall draft picks and other top, young prospects, plus a handful of offseason acquisitions — are desperate to end their playoff drought. And for a rookie head coach, that sort of pressure could prove a challenge.
On that note, MacTavish was particularly impressed with Eakins’ composure during the interview process.
“Those are great qualities for a coach, unflappable and great perspective,” MacTavish said.
Of course, we’ll see if Eakins is still unflappable if the Oilers don’t get off to the start they want, or if the players don’t immediately buy in to his tough approach. Until then, the dice are still tumbling on Edmonton’s coaching gamble.
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