TORONTO– Every time Dallas Eakins has had to fill out a game sheet, the NHL lockout has been in the back of his mind.
The Toronto Marlies head coach has had to divide playing time for as many as 29 players this season, including three goaltenders, and find a balance between winning at the AHL level, developing prospects and keeping in shape the players who would move back up to the parent-club Toronto Maple Leafs if the NHL lockout were to end today.
“That’s why we’ve been doing the rotation in the lineup, said Eakins. (I’m) trying to keep everybody fresh so that if something does happen up top, guys are ready to go up and guys are ready to get into our lineup without two weeks of, ‘hey I have to get my feet underneath me.”
After successful junior campaigns, rookies Greg McKegg and Brad Ross would have been everyday players for Eakins without the lockout, but they have had to take their turns watching at points in the season. McKegg has dressed more consistently, seeing action in 18 games, however Ross has suited up only eight times.
Considering both players are Leafs draft picks and are one day expected to battle for a spot in the NHL, sitting out as often as they have isn’t ideal for the future of the organization, but Eakins doesn’t like to hand out playing time if it isn’t deserved.
“They understand the process that they have to be good or better than someone in the lineup to play,” said Eakins. “We’re not a team that just says, ‘hey you’re 20 years old so you get to play all the time.’ You have to earn things first.”
“We’ve had to challenge them,” he added. “Like any guy that comes out of college or junior, they’ve been the big dog on their team with a lot of minutes and always looked to first. Then what happens when you turn pro a lot of times it’s, ‘whoa, where did all these other good players come from?’
While the two rookies haven’t carved out more significant roles yet with the Marlies, it doesn’t mean that Eakins isn’t pleased with them either. Each have found the scoresheet on occasion and Ross has shown he isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and stand up for a teammate if it’s needed.
“They’re coming along well for me and they are guys that, especially if the lockout ends, we are going to look at right away,” said Eakins.
Currently the Marlies roster is down to 25 players and, with injuries to Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and Mike Zigomanis, an opportunity has opened up for the first-year pros to show if they are fresh and up to Eakins’ standards.
Both McKegg and Ross will be tested on Wednesday night when the Marlies faced off against the Lake Erie Monsters.