Coaching Candidate Profile: Dallas Eakins

Dallas Eakins – Wikimedia commons

The Canucks have requested permission to interview Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, the request was more a formality than anything that was required, and he’s seen as a leading candidate to succeed Alain Vigneault behind the Canucks bench. Eakins has been the head coach for Toronto’s AHL affiliate (the Toronto Marlies) since the 2009-10 season, and he has been coaching in the Leafs organization in some capaciy since 2005.

Is he the right fit for the Canucks? Read on for a lot more on Eakins the man, the coach, and the teacher. A stick tap to Clayton Hansler, who provided me with phenomenal analysis. Clayton (@chanler) is a writer, producer, and reporter for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, and has covered every single game of Eakins’ tenure as the Marlies bench boss.

The Resume

Before serving as the head coach for the Marlies for the past four year, Eakins was a fringe NHLer who had a long playing career in professional hockey. He was the captain of the Manitoba Moose during the 2003-04 season – a roster which also featured a few fresh-faced players named Ryan Kesler (33 games), Kevin Bieksa (four games), and Alexandre Burrows (two games). So right off the bat, there is some familiarity between Eakins and three of Vancouver’s core players. 

Eakins was a no-nonsense defensive defenseman who wasn’t known for his offensive game. In 120 career NHL games, Eakins never found the back of the net (and ended up with only nine helpers). But, along the way, he discovered a passion for teaching the game.

After his playing career wrapped up, he quickly joined the coaching ranks, coming on board with the Marlies as an assistant in 2005 (under Paul Maurice). And he followed Maurice up to the NHL soon after. After Maurice was canned, Eakins ran the Leafs player development department, helping the younger guys with training and transitioning from the NCAA, Major Junior, and Europe to the professional game.

Current Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis wanted Eakins to replace Ron Wilson as the coach in Toronto after Wilson was canned, but then-GM Brian Burke opted for a familiar face in Randy Carlyle:

NHL sources say Nonis went to bat for Dallas Eakins, then and now the coach of the AHL Marlies. Nonis and other front-office executives were of the belief that Eakins is everything a modern-era coach should be; progressive but hard-nosed, communicative with players but never friends with them.

Carlyle’s tenure has been largely positive in Toronto – despite his love of face punchers, and AHL calibre defenceman – but frankly, a lot of Toronto’s success can be attributed to how well Eakins has helped bring along key young players in the organization.

A player’s coach?

Alain Vigneault decided a few years ago that he would keep a distance from the Vancouver dressing room. It was a largely calculated move, as coaches who are too very involved in the day-to-day often get tuned out quickly. Vigneault largely let the players police themselves. This only works in situations with a strong leadership foundation, and the Canucks had/have that with the Sedin twins, Manny Malhotra, Roberto Luongo, Dan Hamhuis, and so on. But Vigneault never was, and won’t ever be, mistaken as a player’s coach. Unless that player is Aaron Rome, I suppose.

Coaches all take different paths to forging relationships with players. Some are teachers. Others are dictators. Some like to yell and play the authoritarian figure, while others are soft-spoken and prefer to work issues out behind the scenes. All types of coaches have had success in this league, but the best coaches are the ones who early on identify their principles and stick to them.

Players refer to [Eakins] as a player’s coach. They say he’s fair — and firm when he has to be — but never holds himself up as an example in his arguments. He’s a former grinder with eight NHL teams, one of the fittest people in the hockey world, and has been tagged by some as a can’t-miss NHL coach.

Being a player’s coach is also a bit easier at the junior or AHL level, where, by and large, the players are younger and more eager to learn. Sometimes coaches with this type of background struggle to adapt their methods to the NHL (look no further than Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay). Would Eakins be the same person if he was given the Canucks job, with fairly veteran-laden roster?

To his credit, Eakins recognized this difference in an interview earlier this season.

“Yes, we do have to win it differently than in the NHL. At this time of year (the playoff stretch run), if we’re protecting a one-goal lead and it’s a faceoff in our own zone, I’m sending out Mike Zigomanis (the best faceoff man in the organization), but if it’s game 19 or something like that, I’m sending a young centre out . . . we may lose the game and those points, but it’s about development here, and at the NHL its always about points.”

Nazem Kadri, who had a phenomenal rookie season with the Maple Leafs in 2013, is a big fan of Eakin’s.

He’s the glue that keeps the puzzle together.  He’s the quarterback, so to speak, that gives us all the faith and confidence that we need to be successful… words can’t describe what he’s meant to me…  When you have a coach like him, you just want to win so badly for him.

I asked Clayton for some more background on Eakins as a coach:

He appreciates the fundamentals of the game. Let’s remember, this is the man who was charged with the task of developing top Leafs talents like Nazem Kadri in all three zones. One of my favourite lines which Eakins would repeat almost nightly in his first two seasons was that keeping a goal out of your own net was as important to the outcome as scoring a goal. The mantra has caught on, as the Marlies have become one of the league’s top penalty killing clubs for three straight seasons – an influence which has worked its way up to the Maple Leafs.

Eakins believes in a strong forecheck and plenty of offensive contribution from his blue line. He believes in mental toughness, and constant pressure – regardless of the score.

The coach brought his team to the Calder Cup last season and finished the 2012-13 campaign second in the conference despite losing six of their top scorers and his top-two defenceman to the return of the NHL. Statistics will show the Toronto Marlies have struggled year after year on the powerplay, though.

Eakins played a significant role in the development of Kadri, James Reimer, and many other young Leafs. He also worked hard to get Joe Colborne back on track. Colborne is a 1st round pick who struggled to adjust to the professional game, but he stepped in and looked pretty good in Round 1 against Boston earlier this month.

Walking the walk

Eakins walks the walk when it comes to fitness and conditioning. Not that this has any direct correlation with coaching success, but fitness and exercise is a great way to keep a clear and level head, especially in a job that is incredibly stressful (Vigneault was known to enjoy lifting weights). And it also earns some respect from his players – especially when they see him doing things like this.

Several hundred well-trained athletes were unable to finish Saturday’s famous Leadville 100 race, but the coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies made sure he wasn’t one of them. Eakins spent 11 hours 15 minutes traversing the punishing 160-kilometre course—having to dismount and push his bike during "multiple" steep, rocky climbs—before eventually reaching the finish line.

It was harder than anything he could have imagined.

Eakins rather clearly believes in inspiring his players. He liked to play motivational quotes and clips to the Marlies before big games. Again, very different than Vigneault, who was a man of few words with his players. Former Marlie and current Leafs defenseman Korbinian Holzer echoes this line of thinking:

He’s a great players’coach. He involves his players. He treats us with respect. He’s also a great motivator. His speeches before games and in between periods get the most out of us. He always finds the right words to fire us up. As players, you see how hard that he works every day. He lives the way he wants us to live and he sets a great example.

I asked Hansler if Eakins’ passion and dedication to fitness is a potential positive element he brings to the table.

Dallas will never ask more of his players than he himself is willing to give. And let’s be honest, athletes are if nothing else competitive. If the guy next to them can do ten reps, it makes them want to do twelve. If their middle age coach can give an hour on the bike, they can push 90 minutes. It most certainly builds rapport within the room.

Outside of the weight room, Eakins has also been known to challenge his players to improve their everyday life. Invitations to join the coach in mini-challenges targeted at daily intake and consumption have appeared on several occasions – the coach then offering to reward players with a dinner after their successful completion.

The right fit for Vancouver?

Eakins makes his offseason home in Vancouver. He is close friends with Trevor Linden. His wife, an actress, lives for much of the year in Vancouver, as well. Eakins also has another connection to the city – a lifelong friendship with deceased and beloved former coach Roger Nielsen.

A vagabond, Eakins was sustained by his own kind, the well-travelled and well remembered Roger Neilson. Eakins went to his hockey camp when he was 13. The next year he jumped from player to counselor. When Neilson died in 2003, Eakins made a staggering discovery. “I thought I was Roger’s best friend in the world but there were 1,500 people who thought the same thing.”

I really enjoyed this interview Eakins gave Jason Gregor from Oilers Nation last summer if you want to do some more reading.

Perhaps the best Eakins quote from everything I read is this answer he gave Gregor – his coaching advice to those just breaking in to the profession.

I think for young coaches, number one, get to know your players and get to know them individually. You’ve got to find out what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them mad. I think it’s so important on so many different levels. You can’t treat every one of your players the same. It’s impossible, and it’s a real dangerous road to go down.

These guys make millions of dollars, but at the end of the day, they are human beings. They aren’t robots. You can’t treat Daniel and Henrik (literally zero maintenance players) the same way you treat the young guys like Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev. This isn’t an indictment of Alain Vigneault – his players didn’t always like him, but they respected him and played hard for him. But it goes to show that there are different ways of going about things. 

I asked Hansler if he felt Eakins was ready to run an NHL team in a market like Vancouver.

Far be it from me to know every detail to which makes someone a great coach at the NHL level. With 82 games a season, and most of us with several seasons under our belt, it can become easy to assume what sort of things make someone a good NHL coach. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that far more goes on behind closed doors than any of us are privy to. It could be late night text messages or mid-summer phone calls. Articles pinned up outside the players lockers or a few brief words spoken right before the team departs from the bus.

What I do believe is that Eakins has shown himself to be exemplary at the AHL level. He has maximized his potential at this level, doing everything he can to equip himself for the next step. Now, as you well know, the jump to the NHL is as much about the coach’s fit with a team as anything. We have all seen some of the league’s best coaches struggle with the wrong group.

I have faith that Eakins is well prepared for the toughest of National Hockey League markets. I wouldn’t want to assume that I know the specific demands placed on a head coach by the Vancouver fan base, but Eakins’s experience as both a player and assistant coach for the Maple Leafs as well as the head coach of the Marlies has well equipped him to navigate the pressures put on by fans, media and management to ice a highly competitive team each and every night.

Is his reputation as a player’s coach well earned? Can it work with NHL veterans?

Dallas has been able to dig deep into his well of experience to motivate players at the AHL level. Having spent most of his career bouncing between both the big club and the affiliate, he knows what it means to achieve goals which in turn help to steal a spot up top. At the same time he can relate to being sent down and pushing himself to fight off disappointment and still perform at a high level.

Eakins has had plenty of experience since being named the Marlies head coach to work with veteran players, some of which making their first American Hockey League appearance. Mike Zigomanis had won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins before join the Maple Leafs organization where he has played only 8 games with the NHL club. Most recently Eakins has been challenged with bringing out the best in Jeff Finger, Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek – all of which had been previously signed to large NHL deals.

Eakins philosophy is as applicable to rookies as it is to veteran players as it focuses on digging deep within yourself and offering the team only the best. Now part of the next step will be seeing how that translates to the NHL level. To be fair, the AHL restricts the amount of veteran players a team can dress each night.

But keep in mind Eakins was an assistant coach on a team which iced Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Hal Gill on a regular basis – all of which with plenty of NHL experience before meeting Eakins.

As I have said a few times now, there are several ways to be successful. Some coaches are master tacticians and are known as the X’s and O’s guys, while other coaches leave that work to the assistants and focus on motivating, running the bench, and taking on more of the macro/big picture scope. I asked Hansler where Eakin fits in on this continuum.

Dallas is an educator. If you think of the school system, our highschool english or math teacher was not only charged with the responsibility of imparting lesson plans, historical facts and formulas – but also continually building us up so we are always putting out best work forward.

Eakins believes in knowing the opponent, so he will impart to his team (whether in meetings leading up to a game, or with small adjustments on the bench) everything he has taken in about the style, tempo, pressure and weakness from the opposition. Eakins believes in sticking to the game plan – as cliche a term as that has become. He will spend the practices leading up to a game to adjust his offence and defense to the team they will face, and expects the players to execute when game time comes.

Eakins has placed his utmost trust in both assistant coaches. Gord Dineen worked regularly with the defence while Derek King operated the special teams.

Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of the type of coach Eakins is can be found when he calls a timeout. Although I would be wrong to say he never reaches for the dry-erase board, I would sure bet that more often than not he can be seen giving his club an impassioned speech.

I didn’t know a lot about Eakins the coach before getting to work on this post the last week. But I have really liked what I have read. I’m not sure he is the right fit for an older team, but perhaps Mike Gillis recognizes that it may be time to get younger and go through a minor rebuild or retool. As a personal trainer, I really like the commitment to health and fitness that Eakins has – and I think that rubs off positively on his players. He’s preparing for the Ironman Triathalon this summer – an inredble test of mental will and physical conditioning.

I have no idea how the Canucks are compared to the rest of the league in terms of fitness (some of their fittest players are also the best ones – Sedins, Hamhuis, and Manny Malhotra was always up there, too), but it can’t hurt to have a coach practicing what he preaches. Eakins is going to be a very good coach in the NHL. It may be with the Canucks. It may be somewhere else. But just as much as the Canucks need to find the best coach available, they also need to find the best fit available, too.

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