We all want that second chance at something. Some of us get it, and some of us don’t. We might get a chance personally that we won’t get professionally, or vice-versa.
For 50-year-old Dallas Eakins, he’s of two minds: incredibly content and pleased with how his two years in San Diego have gone coaching the AHL’s Gulls, and yet wistful about his brief foray into the NHL head coaching ranks in Edmonton, while being hopeful about getting another opportunity.
Eakins and his Gulls have won 82 games and lost 54 in his two regular seasons. He and his staff were applauded during Anaheim’s three-round run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as two San Diego blueliners, Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore, played big minutes in several critical playoff clashes, including against Eakins’ former team in Edmonton.
Since losing the Oilers job 31 games into the 2014-15 season, he’s watched 22 NHL teams replace their head coach (a couple have done it twice, including Edmonton) and the newly-minted Vegas Golden Knights give a third NHL head coaching opportunity to Gerard Gallant. Eakins is looking for his second.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging chat on Sportsnet’s Point Taken podcast hosted by Caroline Cameron & myself, Eakins was refreshingly honest about what went poorly, and what went even worse than that in Edmonton.
“We were barely started that first year, and the expectation of the media and the fans was far different than the expectations I had for that roster, and that was difficult,” Eakins said. “I got the sense right away — this isn’t going to go well. I understood this great community was used to a certain level of play back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it was something they deserved, and they were tired of losing.”
During his rookie season, Eakins inherited a team that had missed the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, and being Oilers head coach was among the least secure jobs in all of pro sports.
Following the run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, Craig MacTavish lasted three more seasons in the position. The late Pat Quinn was one season and done, much to his chagrin and amazement. Tom Renney got two full seasons behind the Oilers bench. Ralph Krueger got 48 games in the 2013 lockout-shortened season, and then it was Eakins’ turn, after being wooed by Vancouver and a couple other NHL markets, including the temptation to stay as a successful and critically acclaimed Toronto Marlies head coach.
But Edmonton was too tempting, as was the four-year contract given to the young coach. Eakins also possessed enough self-confidence that he could be the long-term solution in a gig that had seen so much fluctuation. We’ve all been there, and that’s more practicality than ego talking. Why can’t we eclipse the performance of our predecessor in a business situation? Why can’t we strive to aim higher than the job description suggests the accomplishments should be?
In his rookie season, Eakins was getting his hands on a 21-year-old Taylor Hall, a 23-year-old Jordan Eberle, a 20-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and a 19-year-old Nail Yakupov. Trading for St. Louis Blues forward David Perron, adding a leadership figure in defenceman Andrew Ference with his 120 games of playoff experience, and getting a commitment from coveted free agent blueliner Justin Schultz all suggested big things coming for the Oilers.
Add all that in with a Vancouver team seeing its competitive window begin to close, a Calgary team in full rebuild mode, and a Winnipeg team still finding its way in the Western Conference, and despite the three very strong California-based teams in the Pacific Division, it was understandable to have moderately increased expectations.
Well, “understandable” didn’t coincide with “actual.” A 3-9-2 October lowered expectations and raised red flags in a hurry. Yakupov didn’t look like the No. 1 overall pick that was so obvious to many 15 months prior. Schultz had his positive moments mixed with a steep learning curve for a 23-year-old having to absorb rough and heavy minutes, especially against Western Conference foes. And then there was the goaltending. Six goalkeepers played at least three games for the 2013-14 Oilers – a recipe for a relatively disastrous season.
The Oilers finished Eakins’ rookie season a more serviceable 11-12-3 in their final 26 games, but the numerical damage was already done and the 67-point season earned Edmonton a 28th-place finish ahead of only Florida and Buffalo.
Eakins, in retrospect, realized he was not only attempting to control the damage on the ice, but some off the ice as well. He’d be the first to admit he’s a very blunt assessor of almost everything, and what won him applause in Toronto at the AHL level, such as candid assessments of how his players were developing and a call-out of Nazem Kadri’s eating habits, didn’t play quite as well at the NHL level in Edmonton.
For one pre-season media session, he famously swapped out some ghastly gastrointestinal consumption options like donuts and chocolate muffins for carrot sticks, celery, and orange slices. Done as much as a joke as anything, Eakins found the Edmonton media, quite territorial in nature, took the joke personally, and felt threatened they’d have to get their donuts elsewhere.
Eakins reflects upon the bridge built between himself and certain members of the media with both self-accountability, and yet, a curiosity that he still ponders about:
“A lot of coaches say a whole lot of nothing, but I now understand why they do,” Eakins said. “I always wanted to be as open and truthful as I could be but now I understand why (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick comes out and gives you nothing. I’ve turned the whole Edmonton experience upside down to find ways I could be better. I hadn’t then earned down to do something like setting the fruit and veggies on the table, or to speak so freely. But that’s a criticism of myself that I’ve taken note of.”
There were very few personnel changes for the 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers, and if the roster issues, especially on the blueline and in goal weren’t concerning for a rookie head coach in a market starved for success, they sure were at the beginning of Eakins’ second season.
Starting with a goaltending tandem of Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens, the Oilers grabbed only one point of a possible 10 to start the regular season, but whipped up expectations with a four-game win streak before the end of October, giving up just seven goals in the four wins.
But the losing would return. Edmonton would win only two of 14 November games, losing nine of the 12 by one goal. The drumbeats grew loud for change, but neither Kevin Lowe or MacTavish in the executive branch seemed willing to pull the trigger on a trade of significance involving any of their prized, young assets who were utterly unable to win as a collective entity.
Eakins coached seven December games for the Oilers before the axe fell, ending his 113-game run. For context, the franchise would play another 202 games under interim coach Todd Nelson and eventual long-term hire Todd MacLellan before clinching their first playoff spot in the NHL since 2006. The 2014-15 Oilers goaltenders finished with a league-worst 5-on-5 save percentage of .902. No NHL team’s goaltending has been as bad since.
Eakins described the difficulty of driving to and from the rink before his firing and one can empathize.
“The year I got fired, I thought we had taken some real good steps moving forward. I think we lost 11 games out of the last 15 by one goal if you take out empty net goals,” Eakins said. “We had to get on the other side of that, but our group wasn’t ready, roster-wise, experience-wise, and now it’s great to see where that team is now. I’m so happy for the fans and the community, and they’re building a real community there, and it’s a very fun team to watch.”
As for where the future goes, Eakins isn’t sure. It’s difficult to advocate for the job you want that may not even exist as of yet. Vacancies in the NHL head coaching ranks have come and gone the past couple seasons, and Eakins pauses when asked if his coaching career would feel complete if there isn’t a second crack at an NHL head coaching job.
“I chased that Cup as a player. I was never good enough to be a real steady guy on an NHL team. The Stanley Cup is the outcome I wanted as a player, and I couldn’t do it, so that’s my goal now as a head coach. Now how do I get there? Stay in the moment, I’d say. Will there be a time I want to get back to the NHL? Sure, absolutely; I’d be disappointed not to get there. But I’m looking forward and staying in the moment and trying to get better. Win the marginal games, and the career will take care of itself. It’s how I coach, and, as importantly, it’s how I live.”