TORONTO– I went one on one with Edmonton Oilers’ head coach Dallas Eakins to put together a question and answer piece for The Hockey News. We ended up covering enough subjects that I broke the interview into two pieces.
Part 1 is below while Part 2 will be printed in the next edition of The Hockey News.
When you and the Marlies were eliminated from the AHL playoffs last season, did you know you had coached your last game in Toronto?
Absolutely not. You go through your business as usual with exit meetings and as far as getting your evaluations together for management. I was totally focused on my job with the Marlies and hadn’t given any NHL job a thought until the NHL calls came through a little while longer.
In the summer there was interest from a few clubs for your services. Did you ever experience an off-season like that as a player?
No, I wasn’t a great player, always an extra part. Your agent would get a few calls but that was the most interest this past summer that I’ve ever had in hockey.
There were many people believing you could take over the Leafs when Ron Wilson was let go. Did you believe you were deserving of that position?
I think I was viewed in the right light. I know I was strongly considered for the job. (But) I thought the managers made an excellent hire. When you’re a manager you have to look at all kinds of aspects of your team. I know I was in the mix and they put a great coach in there with great experience and they were familiar with. I was vocal, I wasn’t going to come off and lie to people and say I wasn’t upset, of course I was. My aspiration was to coach in the NHL and I thought I was ready to do it. Listen, for a guy like Randy Carlyle to get the job and you get second place, it’s kind of no different than when I played to a certain degree. I always understood why I was scratched. Very rarely in my playing career did I go, ‘You know what I should be playing ahead of that guy.’ But when the lineup went up there was a certain understanding. ‘You know what I’m not quite as good as those guys.’ When Randy was named coach it was hard to argue the decision. You had a great person, great coach with a Stanley Cup. How can you argue that?
Did your belief in healthy lifestyle, fitness and nutrition exist when you were a player?
It’s something that has always been there but it’s been out of necessity. I think it’s great to be in shape and eat well, you feel more energized. But a lot of it was necessity. if I wasn’t in better shape than some of these guys I wouldn’t even have played in the American league because my skills were so far and few between. I didn’t have great skill. The one thing I firmly understood to bridge the gap in a battle for a job was I needed to be in great shape. Maybe it was the only way sometimes I could survive. I also understood the importance of day one in training camp you usually weren’t on the ice. You were doing fitness tests. I thought it was important to get to the top of that list so at least you were in a favorable part of the coaches minds because day one you were up at the top with the fitness tests. I think it shows commitment. (But) it was bred early. I didn’t know a tenth of what I know now with nutrition and training and I wish I knew a lot more as a player.
With Nazem Kadri it was all about making him see the game in each end while not restricting his natural talents. Is that an issue you see with many of the young talented players now, especially someone like Nail Yakupov?
I just think that with young, highly skilled, players a lot of them have been able to get by with questionable defensive habits for a long time. Basically because they were playing in midget or junior where the talent’s watered down and they could do things by themselves. They were so highly relied on to do certain things so sometimes a coach looked the other way on it. But when you get to the NHL, with players from all over the world, you can’t do that anymore. You have to use your teammates, have an awareness of danger and be good when you don’t have the puck. And that’s all new for these guys. They’re being asked to do things they haven’t been asked before and it doesn’t come naturally. The thing I’ve found with really skilled guys is if you say something about defence or playing without the puck they feel you’re taking something away from them. But you’re not, you’re actually giving them a gift because if they’re better defensively that means we’ll get the puck back quicker and once we get the puck back quicker, then you can use your skill. If you want to continue to have no regard for the defensive part of the game then that means we won’t have the puck as much and you won’t be able to use your skill at all. It’s always an interesting study of their brain because a lot of times when you say defence they look at you right away and say you’re trying to take my skill away.
Pulling the goaltender when down two goals with five or six minutes left in the third period is nothing new to you, what is your belief in that move?
Well it goes back a paper I read years ago that was from an analytical point of view and it made sense that NHL coaches were waiting far too long to get an extra guy out there. I started tinkering with it in the American league, had some success, sometimes not. Let’s say you’re down 3-1 and you’ve played 56 minutes, you’ve got four minutes left and you want to pull your goalie. Why not? You’ve only scored one goal in 56 minutes. Why wait until two minutes left when you have to score two goals to tie it? Why wait to give yourself less time to score those two goals?
You seem comfortable, or more confident, to rely on certain players in certain situations, even if that means shortening the bench. Is this only made possible if the players are at a fitness level you can trust?
That’s it exactly. It’s something you have to keep an eye on. You know who your fittest guys are. If a guy isn’t fit enough it doesn’t matter how good a player is. When you get tired and your heart rate gets up you can’t think anymore and your skills are gone. You want your best players on the ice all the time and I expect my best players to be the fittest guys so they can handle the minutes. but not only handle the minutes in that game but to play back-to-back or three games in five days. You have to be fit to do that. The whole premise of a player going, ‘I play eighteen minutes a night and that’s what I train for,’ well what if I need you to play 26 minutes? Can you do it or is it, I’m not used to playing that much and I can’t get it done? That’s ludicrous to me.
If every player was at a Dallas Eakins’ fitness approval level, how many lines does an NHL team actually need to have?
You’d still want all four lines at a really high fitness level because you could really ware down the other team with the pace of the game. But I think you should be able to get away with, bare minimum, three lines the whole game, easily, and even go to two-and-a-half lines in certain situations.
In the AHL you said you could always relate to guys at that level because of your personal experiences. Now that you have to coach guys with security, what’s changed for you in your approach?
Not much actually. The one thing with being an American Hockey League coach is one of the tools is you can go to the player and say, ‘Hey what’s your dream because it can’t be to have been to play in the AHL?’ The biggest thing there is the chance and you’ve always got that. But don’t you want a bigger role, don’t you want to win a cup, don’t you want to be the best player on your team, or in the league? It never stops and it always comes back to winning championships and having a sense of self accomplishment.
Look for Part 2 in The Hockey News, which includes more in-depth discussion about Yakupov, the easiest way a player can piss off Dallas Eakins and why his players should believe in him.