Will the Toronto Maple Leafs miss out on another can’t-miss NHL head coach to come out of their minor league system?
Perhaps, but general manager Brian Burke can live with the possibility if the parent team can gain a playoff berth this season or next.
On Friday evening, Burke elected to hire Randy Carlyle, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim in 2007, to replace the fired Ron Wilson, saying the Leafs are capable of making the playoffs despite their current 1-9-1 slide.
Disappointed at not getting the job was Dallas Eakins, who has coached Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate to a first-place standing in the North Division with a 32-19-6 record.
'Dallas Eakins is going to be a real good NHL coach. ... We just felt [hiring him now] was putting him in a tank of piranhas and sharks.'— Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke on AHL coach Dallas Eakins
He’s in his third season coaching the Marlies after spending three previous seasons as an assistant with the team along with being an assistant with the Leafs and serving in a front-office role as director of player development.
"I talked to Dallas this morning at length," Burke told reporters in Montreal on Saturday ahead of the Maple Leafs’ date with the Canadiens later that night. "Everyone in our hockey operations department thinks that Dallas Eakins is a helluva coach. He’s done a marvelous job. But … he’s never coached a playoff game in the American Hockey League.
"Dallas Eakins is going to be a real good NHL coach. His day will come [but] it may not be with us. We just felt [hiring him now] was putting him in a tank of piranhas and sharks. We would have no chance [to make the playoffs this season]."
Burke said the Leafs braintrust considered a number of candidates for the coaching job, both externally (former Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks head coach Marc Crawford) and internally (Eakins, Leafs assistants Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, along with former assistant Rob Zettler).
"We went through the process," said Burke, "and [Carlyle] is the guy we all felt was the one that gave us the best chance for success."
No room to move
In 1994, Crawford guided the Leafs' AHL club, then based in St. John's, along with Joel Quenneville. Like Eakins, they were aspiring NHL head coaches but the head job in Toronto was filled at the time by the late Pat Burns.
Crawford moved on and hoisted the Cup just two years later with the Colorado Avalanche, while Quenneville took a little longer, hoisting Lord Stanley's mug in 2010.
The Maple Leafs awoke Saturday in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind Winnipeg for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Marlies held a nine-point lead over the second-place Rochester Americans in the North Division with the teams set to battle Saturday night in Toronto.
A year ago, the Marlies narrowly missed the playoffs after winning 37 games. In Eakins’s rookie season they won 33.
"I think I’m good at identifying coaching talent and good at supporting coaching talent. That [Marlies] team is first place by [nine points]. We burned two [AHL recalls] to make sure Dallas has a chance to take a run [at a division title]," said Burke, noting the Leafs only have two recalls left to use this season of four allowed after the NHL trade deadline.
"We want Dallas to have success there. We want our players to experience AHL playoff success. We think that augers well for them in the future. That experience is vital, in terms of developing players."
Burke said the "miracle" in Anaheim that led to its successful Cup run in 2007 wasn’t the championship itself. It was the organization’s development of the players at both the NHL and AHL levels.
Over a three-year period, the NHL’s Ducks and the AHL Portland Pirates played a combined 14 playoff rounds, including eight by Anaheim.
"Those were vital stepping stones for that [Ducks] franchise developing players," Burke said.