Dallas Eakins fighting to improve Oilers | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaDallas Eakins fighting to improve Oilers

Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 | 12:23 PM

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In his first year as head coach of the Oilers, Dallas Eakins has tried to inject a sense of defensive responsibility into a group of talented offensive players. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press) In his first year as head coach of the Oilers, Dallas Eakins has tried to inject a sense of defensive responsibility into a group of talented offensive players. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

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First as a scrappy journeyman who clawed his way to an 18-year pro career, and now as the first-year head coach of a talented but frustrating Edmonton team, Dallas Eakins has never been one to back down from a challenge.
Dallas Eakins is a fighter and a survivor.

He fought his way onto the roster of the Peterborough Petes in junior hockey and eventually became that storied franchise's captain.

His first tryout with the Petes came in an era when Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch, in an effort to reduce pre-season fighting, implemented a rule whereby it was one fight and you're out of the game.

Eakins made it through one shift in each of his first two games before getting tossed.

That prompted then Petes coach Dick Todd to suggest, "Dallas, we have established you can fight. Now I need to know if you can play hockey."

He could indeed play, although nothing was ever handed to him on a silver platter. Rather, the Dade City, Fla., native scraped and clawed his way through an 18-year professional career, mostly as a minor leaguer. He played 120 games in the NHL with Winnipeg, Florida, St. Louis, Phoenix, the New York Rangers and Islanders, Toronto and Calgary, mainly as a defenceman, but sometimes as a winger. Probably would have played in goal too if it came down to that.

He simply never gave up on the dream.

So it should come as no surprise that, with his NHL head coaching career off to a bumpy start in Edmonton, Eakins is dwelling only on the positives.

"You aspire to coach in the NHL and you always have visions of grandeur, but coming in here and looking at where the team was as well as their experience level, I knew it was going to be a challenge," Eakins said. "I knew it was going to take time, and time doesn't mean two weeks or two months or even half a season."

Bad habits

Eakins is not one to make excuses, but if he were, he might point to the fact that the Oilers did not receive first-rate goaltending in the first quarter of the season. He is introducing his group of mostly young forwards to a new system, and the process was challenged when the team suffered injuries to key personnel. Add in the fact that his team played nine of its first 13 games on the road and you just may have the perfect storm for failure.

"You get in a bad place and the group loses its confidence and it's hard to claw out of it," Eakins said.

That has been his biggest challenge, and based on the Oilers' improved performances as the season has progressed, his message seems to be getting through.

Before Tuesday's loss to Phoenix in the opener of a five-game homestand, the Oilers had won five of their last seven, including three on the road. They rolled the dice on enigmatic goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who recorded a shutout in his first outing and played superbly Monday night in a shootout victory in Dallas.

"Our guys fully understand what we want from them in the defensive zone. We're healthy and now we're in games," Eakins said. "Our record in the first 20 games [4-16-0] was not what I had envisioned and you never want to go through it, but there is a part of you that understands you need for your team to go through a little adversity. Was that a little over the top? Yes. But our guys learned a lot."

Years and years of losing allowed the Oilers to have the pick of the crop on draft day and they never failed to take the best offensive player available. In other words, they took the safe route. In back-to-back-to-back years they selected Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick.

Even when it was apparent they needed help in goal and on defence, the Oilers kept choosing medium-sized forwards. By the time the 2012 draft rolled around, Edmonton might have been wiser to choose a defenceman or goalie or perhaps trade the pick to fill the pressing needs of a team that has not made the playoffs since 2006.

Being a defence-first coach, Eakins has had a lot of teaching to do with players who rarely saw their own end of the rink while working their way up to the NHL.

"Believe it or not, while we were going through that horrible time we were actually seeing some improvement," Eakins said. "It's hard to sell improvements to the group when you are losing every night."

Winning, Eakins added, is the result of developing good habits. In some cases he took exceptionally skilled players and asked them to do things differently because what they did in junior or college hockey wasn't working in the NHL.

"It takes a long time to break bad habits," Eakins said. "If I asked you to cross your arms, you'd cross them like you always do because that's your habit. If I asked you to cross them the other way, you'd have to think about it. How do you cross them the other way and make that your new habit? That takes time."

Tough sell

Eakins said the stress of coaching -- and losing -- in the NHL has not gotten him down. He insisted he is a "task-at-hand" guy who doesn't stop to think if his team is on a five-game winning or five-game losing streak.

"If I read, for example, the Florida Panthers have never won a game at GM Place, I wonder to myself, what does that have to do with tonight's game?" Eakins said. "What does a losing streak have to do with tonight's game? The heat gets turned up in the city, but it can't distract you from what you are doing."

Eakins listens to what critics say about his team and his coaching style, but it doesn't alter his plan.

"I think the group we have now should be able to compete on a nightly basis and should win more games than we lose when we are on our game," Eakins said. "When we get down a goal or two the first reaction is to open up and see what happens. We have gotten better at not doing that so much."

Eakins's biggest task is getting his players to understand every shift has a consequence in the game, and offence comes as a result of playing good team defence. It is often a tough sell.

"We firmly believe that everybody can play defence when we don't have the puck. It is a skill that everybody should be able to learn and employ. The interesting thing is, sometimes when you say 'defence' to an offence-minded player he thinks you are trying to take something away from him.

"In fact, you're giving him a gift. We want to play better defence to get the puck back faster to give to him so he can be on offence."

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