EDMONTON — Dallas Eakins arrives in Edmonton this week for training camp, as hell bent on changing a losing culture as he is to finish one of those maniacal, 12-hour bike races he favours.
Eakins won’t say it in as many words, out of respect for previous coaches here (and there have been plenty). But the young, entertaining Oilers are gone, in Eakins’ mind, to be replaced by a team that finally makes Rexall Place an uncomfortable place to visit.
“You will either compete hard or you will … not … play,” Eakins spelled out, as the Penticton Rookie tournament wound to a close. “I do not care how old you are, how much money you make, how much term you have left on your contract.
“You will compete, or your minutes will be cut until you buy in. That’s how it’s going to go.”
He is the new boss, and he’s not the same as the old boss.
For instance, they’ve been giving jobs away to talented 18-year-olds for some time in Edmonton, which isn’t Eakins’ style at all. It has been unavoidable for his predecessors, a combination of a team that was so bad, thus the draft picks so high, that they simply couldn’t justify keeping a No. 1 pick off of a team that they were more than capable of making out of training camp.
As such, they’ve become known as “The young Oilers,” another label Eakins promises to incinerate as soon as he walks into his first National Hockey League head-coaching gig, after seven years coaching in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system.
“That was the first thing I asked when I came in here. ‘Do not refer to this team as a young team anymore,’” the 46-year-old said. “We’re not a ‘young’ team. We’re a team.
“When you call a team a young team you immediately alienate a bunch of guys. And you make it about certain people. We’re not going to do that here. You’re all going to be treated the same when it comes to your work ethic and discipline.”
Was that a tract lifted from the training camp letter sent out to every Oilers player?
“That was part of it,” he admits.
After a pair of patient builders in Tom Renney and Ralph Krueger, who had little choice but to set down the building blocks and coach their way through the learning process, Eakins takes over at the precise moment that this Oilers team is ready to take the next step.
Sam Gagner is in year seven and his third NHL contract, while Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall are fourth-year NHL players now. Goalie Devan Dubnyk had the league’s 14th best save percentage last season (.920) last season, while seeing more rubber-per-start than all but two NHL starting goalies. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, whose start could be delayed by off-season shoulder surgery, is a third-year centreman.
Eakins knows the reputation here in Edmonton: The Oilers are easy to play against; they don’t have puck retrievers, and in general, a trip through Rexall Place comes without a Band-Aid or a bruise.
They have been incredibly easy to play against through the course of this rebuild — from a physical and mental standpoint, changes that Eakins vows to make.
But first, his style dictates that he gets to know each of his new players individually. Find out what their goals are, or perhaps the impediments that have collectively formed an underachieving team.
“It’s going to start right away on that first day, at whatever time they’re starting their physicals. I will be in there immediately starting to kick tires,” he promised. “I will … figure out what makes each guy tick.”
Define “kicking tires,” we asked him.
“I’m going to probe these guys through friendly conversation, and the maybe some uncomfortable questions too,” Eakins said. “Maybe something I’ve heard about them before that was a negative. Maybe it was something great I’ve heard about them.
“Are they lookin’ me in the eye? Are they lookin’ away? There is no set template to it. Each guy is different.”
He comes in from the outside, a Roger Neilson disciple more recently influenced by Randy Carlyle, Brian Burke, Dave Nonis, among others.
He is here not simply to build, but to build a winner. To replace the “young Oilers” with the “Good Oilers.”
“Everybody thinks there is this great, secret ingredient to winning. This wisdom. I don’t buy that,” Eakins said. “I think it’s simple hard work, dedication, commitment, being a good teammate… If you’ve got a whole bunch of guys like that on your team then it all comes together.
“If you’ve got a separation or divide in your dressing room then it’s not going to happen.”
It’s time in Edmonton, of that there is no doubt. But is Eakins the right guy to take this rebuild to the next phase?
We sense he is. We also sense there will be some discomfort for these players along the way, perhaps overdue.