EDMONTON — There are two things you must know about Dallas Eakins:
His surname is pronounced “Akins,” and there is a reason he never scored a single goal in a 120-game career as an NHL defenceman.
“The coaches held me back,” Eakins laughed on Monday, the day he was announced as the 12th head coach in Edmonton Oilers history, and as of next fall, the fifth head man in six seasons.
Is Eakins the right man for this project in Edmonton? We’ll get to that in due course.
The bigger question is this: is it about time this Oilers organization started making the right choices, after firing the last four coaches in a span of five seasons? You’re damned right it is.
Edmonton hasn’t made the postseason since 2006, and this particular rebuild is already three years old.
There is a reason an organization falls to the depths that this one has; reasons why it drafts at No. 1 for three straight years, and fires coaches the way a Toronto mayor dismisses aides.
That is because a goodly portion of the decisions made over a long period of time have been bad ones.
There were poor drafts. A couple of seasons spent without its own farm club. Ineffective members of the Oilers mafia given employment for too long because they were “good guys.”
An owner who knows everything about the pharmacy business, but likely next to nothing about hockey – and meddles in hockey decisions.
If all of those processes do not get repaired in Edmonton, it won’t matter what kind of a coach Eakins is, or how you pronounce his name.
Under new general manager Craig MacTavish however, we suspect a return to functionality will occur here in Edmonton. And just as one bad decision used to beget another one in years past around here, MacTavish’s first hire appears to be another step forward in returning this once proud franchise to relevancy.
“This isn’t about winning one game or (winning for) one season. This is about bringing this organization back,” Eakins, 46, said Monday. “That they’re in the mix to win every year.”
Eakins had gone two interviews deep with the Vancouver Canucks, spoken with the New York Rangers about their head coaching job, and had cancelled Dallas GM Jim Nill at the last minute on Saturday when the Oilers got more involved.
An Oilers envoy consisting of MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Scott Howson had spoken with Eakins around the NHL Combine in Toronto, and liked what they found to such a degree that they requested another meeting.
Before the visit was up, Eakins had the job, and MacTavish was boning up on his Skype prior to a conversation with Ralph Krueger.
The two lasting impressions made on MacTavish were Eakins’ repartee with young players, and the fact he appeared “unflappable under pressure.”
“I am extremely confident in this man’s ability to lead this hockey club,” MacTavish said Monday.
In hiring the four-year head coach of the Toronto Marlies, Oilers fans get a patchwork quilt of some of the great coaches of yore. In 16 pro seasons he was a journeyman who watched nearly as many games from the press box as he played (120) on the ice.
“I played in about 800 cities, and a lot of times I was a healthy scratch,” he recalled. “I wasn’t just sittin’ upstairs eating popcorn. I was taking notes.
“It benefits a guy like me to have played for Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan… Coaches who have rubbed off me at an AHL level, (like) Dave Farrish. To see Randy (Carlyle) this year. Ron Wilson.”
Of his view from upstairs, he said, “I’ve shaken my head and said, ‘That does not work.’ And I’ve nodded my head and taken note of what does. I’m a hybrid of a lot of different pieces. But the two mains guys are Roger Neilson — we never, ever saw the game the same way — and Paul Maurice. He mentored me early on.”
He is a Neilson disciple, playing four years for the same Peterborough Petes that gave the legendary coach his first Major Junior job, and played for him in Florida and St. Louis — a 1995-96 team that MacTavish joined few games after Eakins had been moved on to Winnipeg.
“I’d like to thank my great friend Roger Neilson, who told me on many occasions that my mark in the NHL would be made as a coach — because I wasn’t a very good player,” Eakins said.
Eakins speaks of coaching in the minors, and sometimes putting the win in jeopardy by giving a young centreman a third or fourth chance at winning a defensive zone draw. “Because that’s what (that level) is about. Development,” he said.
Starting next season that will change.
“If we’ve got the game in hand, believe me, I’m putting my best centreman out there to take the draw. It won’t be the time for development.”
Oilers fans have had enough of development.
What they’d really like is to able to develop a relationship with a head coach — before he gets canned, like so many have here of late.
Once that process ceases, perhaps another can begin here in Edmonton.