Dallas Eakins signs on to coach Edmonton Oilers

Last week, the Edmonton Oilers announced the firing of coach Ralph Krueger after just one 48 game season, a surprise to many if not all.  It was immediately reported that Dallas Eakins, whilst not yet signed to a contract, was very close to agreeing to a deal with the team.

Let’s examine why that might have happened, and why they decided to move away from Krueger whom many expected to get another year to see what he could do.

Krueger made mistakes, but many of them were defensible, and he was a good guy, one of the most impressive men I’ve ever seen speak.  That’s not what makes a good coach though, and I can back a move by a team to make an upgrade if the opportunity is available.  And Dallas Eakins, whilst a rookie head coach himself, represents something of an upgrade.  He is an impressive speaker, like Krueger, but far more intense – though, again like Krueger, he is apparently popular with his players.

The advantage he represents over Krueger however, is more experience in the “North American” style of play, and a greater emphasis on tactical play and in-game management.  Krueger didn’t seem to be one for line-matching, and with an unbalanced team like the Oilers that was just inexcusable.  Eakins, reportedly, employed fairly strong line-matching with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, and it brought the team much success as they made the Calder Cup Finals in 2012.

Eakins had a decent enough pro career as a player, skating as a defenceman in several hundred AHL games and 120 NHL games between 1988 and 2004.  A hard-nosed, defensive defender who could chip in on offence, he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as an Assistant Coach in 2006, and was named Head Coach of their AHL affiliate the Marlies in 2009.  Whilst the first two years saw no playoff action, the team improved vastly year over year, and in his third year as coach they made the Cup Finals, losing to the powerhouse Norfolk Admirals.  They made it to the second round this year.

On a more specific level, the team improved from a -68 goal differential in his first year, to a +9 goal differential in his second year, a massive improvement.  That further improved to an amazing +42 in his third year, and a similarly impressive +38 in his final year.

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Now, it might be prudent to examine the players he had on each roster, to see what kind of talent he had to work with.  A good coach is important, but good players are more important to the success of a team.

2009/10 Marlies notable players (30+ games):

  • Andre Deveaux (decent AHL forward, led team in scoring)
  • Viktor Stalberg (future NHLer, second in team scoring in nearly half number of games)
  • Greg Scott (decent AHL forward)
  • Christian Hanson (fairly decent AHL forward, career season that year)
  • Kyle Calder (590 NHL games, at that point a very good AHLer)
  • Tim Brent (star AHLer at that point, now a depth NHLer with over 200 games)
  • Ryan Hamilton (young developing winger at that point, several good AHL seasons now)
  • Tyler Bozak (good NHLer now, rookie pro at that point but still highly thought of)
  • Joey MacDonald (long-time depth goalie in NHL and good AHLer)

That team also had appearances from notable players such as James Reimer, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Matt Beleskey, Jay Rosehill and Mike Zigomanis.  A pretty decent team on paper, but for whatever reason it just didn’t work.

2010/11 Marlies notable players (30+ games):

  • Mike Zigomanis (led team in scoring, top AHLer with nearly 200 NHL games)
  • Nazem Kadri (rookie pro impressed with scoring, defensive questions)
  • Christian Hanson (decent AHL forward)
  • Ryan Hamilton (improving young winger)
  • Matt Lashoff (former first rounder, decent minor league defender)
  • Marcel Mueller (German star forward, decent AHLer)
  • Joey Crabb (up and down career, decent AHLer overall with 170 NHL games)
  • Fabian Brunnstrom (undeniable talent, but struggled with North American career)
  • Korbinian Holzer (decent AHL defender, saw significant NHL time in 2012/13)
  • Keith Aulie (rookie pro in 10/11, highly thought of but inexperienced)
  • Ben Scrivens (rookie pro in 10/11, young developing goalie)

A lot of notable names here, plus the likes of Joe Colborne, Jussi Rynnas, Jake Gardiner and Jeff Finger putting in time on the team.  However, this is clearly a less veteran team than the previous year’s, so to experience such a massive jump in goal differential from that year is even more impressive.

2011/12 Marlies notable players (30+ games):

  • Mike Zigomanis (see above)
  • Ryan Hamilton (ever improving winger at AHL level)
  • Marcel Mueller (see above)
  • Greg Scott (was on previous teams, but more of a factor by this point with an impressive season)
  • Jerry D’Amigo (like Scott, on previous team but more of a factor this year)
  • Nazem Kadri (improved in all around play, still a work in progress with criticisms of attitude)
  • Joe Colborne (less impressive in full year with team, still a notable prospect)
  • Philippe Dupuis (fairly good AHLer with over 100 NHL games)
  • Nicolas Deschamps (very good year that season)
  • Korbinian Holzer (see above)
  • Jeff Finger (decent NHLer in AHL due to contract)
  • Ben Scrivens (developed well year over year)

Further notables to make appearances include Jake Gardiner, Keith Aulie, Jussi Rynnas, Mark Fraser, Luca Caputi, Carter Ashton and Matt Frattin.  Again, a much younger roster, but the new faces are of pretty good quality and the familiar faces developed well on the whole.  Had decent veterans, but primarily a young team which had an incredible year.

2012/13 Marlies notable players (30+ games):

  • Ryan Hamilton (star AHLer by this point)
  • Joe Colborne (improved over previous year, good AHLer but not as hoped)
  • Keith Aucoin (superstar AHL forward)
  • Mike Zigomanis (down year for him, still useful forward)
  • Mike Kostka (impressive AHL offensive defender played his way into NHL)
  • Spencer Abbot (rookie pro enjoyed decent first year)
  • Jake Gardiner (lockout and odd decisions gifted Gardiner to Marlies, star defenceman at this level and very good NHLer)
  • Greg Scott (good AHL forward)
  • Nazem Kadri (best season yet, made NHL after lockout and hot-streaked his way to stardom)
  • Paul Ranger (decent NHLer returning after long disappearance, played very well)
  • Greg McKegg (rookie pro had a fairly decent season)
  • Carter Ashton (highly regarded, but has struggled at AHL level)
  • Korbinian Holzer (see above)
  • Mark Fraser (experienced pro at NHL and AHL level)

Other notables include Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Tyler Biggs, Morgan Rielly, Mike Mottau, Leo Komarov & Tim Connolly.  This is probably the most balanced team that Eakins had, a good mix of veterans, rookies, and guys still developing.  They maintained the impressive pace set the previous year, more or less.

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Looking at these lists, perhaps the most impressive thing is just how many of these players have gone on to the NHL and impressed to some extent: Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, Ryan Hamilton, Ben Scrivens, Keith Aulie, Viktor Stalberg to name but a few.  Those are some decent pro hockey players, and a certain amount of their development into good NHLers must be acknowledged as being down to Eakins and his staff.  Certainly not 100%, as just as much of it is down to the player, luck and situation as it is the coach, but it would be foolish to deny Eakins credit where it’s due.

The challenge now is for Eakins to transfer his skills at developing and winning with an AHL squad, to the NHL.  That’s a tall order, particularly with a team as bad as the Edmonton Oilers in their current state.

To expect miracles would be setting ones self up for disappointment, but nonetheless I would expect to see big strides made in several areas of the team given Eakins’ impressive resumé.

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