Johnston: Eakins ready to make jump to NHL

Dallas Eakins credits Roger Neilsen as being his most important coaching mentor. (Jason Franson/CP)

TORONTO — No organization worth its salt would stand in the way of an employee chasing a better opportunity elsewhere.

So it is with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now as they contemplate the possibility of losing Dallas Eakins — arguably the franchise’s best prospect — to one of the coaching positions available around the NHL.

The Leafs were so supportive of Eakins that they opened a window in his contract early so that he could start pursuing openings immediately. He interviewed with the Vancouver Canucks earlier this week and has been granted permission to meet with two other teams as well.

More may still follow.

After having Eakins in the organization for eight years, the last four as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Marlies, the Maple Leafs braintrust fully understands that the time may have come for him to move on.

“It’s a part of the business,” Dave Poulin, the team’s vice-president of hockey operations, told on Friday. “We want everyone to do well in our organization. If there are opportunities for him that aren’t available here at this point and he’s ready for them … it’s his prerogative.

“He’s earned that.”

The Marlies have gone 157-114-41 under Eakins since 2009 and lost in the Calder Cup final last season. The team advanced to the second round this year despite seeing 11 players move up to the Maple Leafs at some point during the lockout-shortened schedule.

Those are impressive credentials — Poulin believes the AHL is the toughest level to coach at “because no one wants to be there” — and they’ve made Eakins a hot commodity in the hockey world.

The Leafs strongly considered promoting him when Ron Wilson was fired in March 2011, but former general manager Brian Burke elected to go with experience instead and brought on Randy Carlyle.

At that time, Eakins was open with his feelings about being passed over.

“I’m not going to sit around and lie to the public and the media, put on a smiley face and say ‘Oh no, I’m not upset with it at all,”‘ he said. “If I wasn’t disappointed, Burke should’ve fired me, because if you’re not disappointed, and you’re OK with that, then that says you’re OK with the status quo and that’s it.”

It’s been far from the status quo since.

The steady stream of players who have arrived at the Leafs doorstep ready to contribute has spoken volumes about the work being done at the AHL level. Poulin and other members of Leafs management have also had some veterans make a point of pulling them aside to give Eakins a vote of confidence.

“He communicates well with the players, he communicates well with us,” said Poulin. “He’s won and I think that helps. He hasn’t won the ultimate prize, but he’s won (a lot of games). The teams have gotten better and the players have gotten better.”

Ironically, one of the main strengths he’s shown is the ability to get the most of players who are currently stuck where they are — the guys who aren’t due for a call-up any day now.

With the Leafs having qualified for the playoffs in Carlyle’s first full year behind the bench, it is essentially the spot Eakins himself now occupies in Toronto.

“It’s no different in the corporate structure,” said Poulin. “If you’ve got a young stud in the accounting department that you want to promote to CFO but you don’t have a CFO position open for him, how do you keep him sharp? How do you keep him attaining skills that are going to get him there?

“Dallas provides a very, very different on and off the ice experience than a lot of people.”

Ultimately, the fact that he might soon find work elsewhere isn’t much of a surprise for anyone involved with the Leafs. The three-year contract Eakins signed last year included windows to negotiate with NHL teams both this summer and next summer.

During the NHL lockout, Carlyle had a chance to spend some extra time around the Marlies and predicted to me back in October that the “NHL isn’t too far off” for Eakins.

“He’s a competitor, a guy that played in a lot of different organizations and wore a lot of different hats for different teams,” said Carlyle. “He was a student of the game and now you can see that he’s taken the next step. He’s a very qualified coach.”

If Eakins doesn’t accept another job by the end of the summer, his opportunity to speak with other teams will close for the season. Essentially, it would mean he is committed to another full campaign with the Marlies.

In the event that happens, the organization would be thrilled to welcome him back.

“He has declined opportunities in the past to even talk to other teams,” said Poulin. “I don’t think it will be (strange) at all (if he returns), I really don’t. He’s in a good place — he’s in a good place with his family, I think he’s in a good city, I think he’s in a good organization.

“I think he’s very comfortable with himself and I think he’ll be fine.”

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