Even before Anaheim Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray fired Randy Carlyle in February, Dallas Eakins’ name was mentioned repeatedly as the best candidate to coach the Ducks in 2019-20.
Eakins has not yet been interviewed for the job yet because his San Diego Gulls are in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference Final against the Chicago Wolves. If the Ducks go with Eakins, the best-case scenario for him would be to equal what another former AHL coach has done in his second NHL head coaching job, the Boston Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy. Cassidy and Eakins have very interesting parallels between their two careers.
Cassidy’s First Experience Didn’t Go Well
Cassidy’s first experience as an NHL head coach came in the 2002-03 season with the Washington Capitals. In his first season, Cassidy went 39-29-8-6 (teams could still tie back then). The Capitals qualified for the playoffs that season as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference only to fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
Things fell off the rails in 2003-04, and Cassidy lost his job only 25 games into the season. Why did he have such a short leash?
Capitals players hated him.
Just last week, former Capital Bates Battaglia voiced his feelings for his former coach on the Barstool Sports podcast “Spittin Chiclets.”
“Oh yeah, piece of (expletive). Tip to tail,” he said of Cassidy. “Never liked that guy. I don’t know how he is still a coach. It boggles my mind. I honestly didn’t even know he was still coaching.”
Several other players voiced their dislike for Cassidy claiming he was unprepared, unprofessional and adversarial.
Former Washington Post reporter Jason La Canfora highlighted another weakness in Cassidy’s coaching performance with the Capitals
“Washington was accustomed to a structured defensive system under Wilson and looked for that kind of direction. But the team went into December last season with Cassidy implementing a loose plan in which players made many of the on-ice decisions. It resulted in a directionless performance in many games, and improvement did not come until the coaches settled on a traditional trapping, defense-oriented system after meeting with McPhee.”(‘A Young Hire, Plagued by Inexperience From the Start’ – The Washington Post – 12/11/03).
This defensive failure was even more startling coming from a man who had played defense in the NHL. Much like Cassidy, Eakins had a similar negative experience his first time around.
Eakins Falls on His Face in Edmonton
While Eakins has had success over his four-season stint as Gulls head coach, his time as Edmonton Oilers head coach was a notorious failure. Eakins coached only 113 games in Edmonton over less than two seasons. That’s only seven more games than Cassidy did in his first NHL coaching stint.
Back when Edmonton fired Eakins, TSN analyst Craig Button said of his tenure, “Listen, with Dallas Eakins, it was a disaster. His entire tenure there was a disaster. The team couldn’t function as a group. Individuals fell off in their play. There’s no other way to put it. In every single area.”
Like Cassidy in Washington, Eakins, a defenseman in his playing days, failed to coach a defensively responsible team. His 2013-14 Oilers team surrendered 267 goals, the most in the NHL that season. The Edmonton Journal’s David Staples highlighted the team’s issue with Eakins defensive system, which he called “swarm.” Swarm focused on double-teaming offensive players in order to force turnovers. It didn’t work.
“By “doubling up,” Eakins means a system of play where the first defender in the d-zone corner must pin the attacking forward against the boards, then a second Oiler comes in to fetch the puck. The problem with this was twofold. First, Oilers players were too quick to attempt to double up. Before the first defender had effectively pinned the attacker, the second man would rush in, leaving open spaces in the middle of the ice. If the attacker shook free for a second, he could then pass to an open teammate in prime scoring position.”(“My bad.” Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins admits a mistake with “swarm,” tries to correct it. – The Edmonton Journal – 10/31/13).
Though Eakins failed in a big way during his first experience as an NHL coach, that shouldn’t be a deal breaker, just like it wasn’t for Cassidy.
NHL Learning Experiences
Cassidy spent 12 seasons atoning for his time in Washington. He moved onto the Chicago Blackhawks as an assistant, then the OHL as a head coach, then the AHL for eight seasons as an assistant and then head coach. He finally returned to the NHL in 2016-17 as an assistant coach for the Bruins before taking over the head coaching duties in Boston later that season.
Cassidy has shown a lot of growth since his time in Washington as evidenced by his players’ praise for him and their performance on the ice. The man who lashed out at his players 15 years ago has learned to manage and communicate well with them in the most high-pressure situations.
“He lets us as leaders have control of the room and communication is a big part,” Bruin captain Zdeno Chara told NESN in an interview.
Tory Krug echoed his captain. “He knows when some guys need a kick in the rear to get going and get moving,” he said. “I think having a pulse on the team in a situation like that is crucial.”
Cassidy and the Bruins will play the first game of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston on Monday.
Will Eakins Learn as Cassidy Did?
If the Ducks hire Eakins as their head coach, they will do so hoping he’s taken as much from his first experience as an NHL head coach and his time coaching in the minors as Cassidy did.
So far, he’s been saying all the right things and so have his players.
In a Q&A with SportsNet’s Mark Spector Eakins admitted he learned a lot from his time in Edmonton and realized he went about things the wrong way.
“Instead of trying to reason, teach some lessons, take a couple of years to cultivate it,” he said. “I tried to bang it out in one or two months. In the end, it was burnt down, and I was the last guy standing.”
Eakins’ Gulls are now in the AHL’s Western Conference Final and his players are having similar reactions to him as the Bruins have had to Cassidy.
In an interview with the Athletic’s Eric Stephens, Gulls forward Kiefer Sherwood said of Eakins,
“Just in the way he commands himself,” he continued. “He’s got a lot of character. Very motivated. He gives us lessons a lot. I think I’m not alone in saying I’d go through a wall for him. He has all bought in.”(‘I’d go through a wall for him’ — Is Dallas Eakins the right guy for the Ducks’ coaching job? – The Athletic NHL – 4/29/19).
It’s clear that Eakins is a frontrunner for the Ducks job, and once the Gulls’ seasons ends, we’re sure to find out quickly if Eakins does get the job. If he does, Murray can only hope that his new coach has the success that Cassidy has had.
Anthony Ciardelli grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire but now lives in Los Angeles. Though he was raised a Bruins fan, he quickly came to enjoy the hockey culture in Southern California and the rivalry between the Kings and Ducks. He covered USC Athletics while pursuing his journalism masters there. He also enjoys doing play-by-play for USC Trojan Hockey.