Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray has finally made the move most fans and media have been anticipating since the start of 2019. Rumors began circulating Sunday that Murray had decided to hire San Diego Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins as the Ducks’ new head coach. By Monday the team made it official.
Eakins is the right choice for a Ducks team in transition. Some people have pointed to his failed time as the Edmonton Oilers’ head coach as reason why he isn’t right, but make no mistake, Eakins is the smartest choice.Now the Ducks need to give him the best opportunity to win.
What the Ducks Can Learn From Eakins’ Time in Edmonton
Eakins has admitted he learned a lot from his only other NHL head coaching experience with the Oilers. It would be wise for the Ducks to learn from it as well. They need to understand what went wrong in Edmonton so they can avoid the same mistakes.
The first lesson they need to learn is to give Eakins time. Even in his second stint, he won’t nail it right away, and unlike the Oilers, the Ducks need to be ready for some growing pains.
The Oilers had seven coaches in a decade. Only two coaches, Tom Renney and Todd McLellan, lasted more than two full seasons. Renney lasted exactly two while McLellan lasted just over three full seasons and was the only one of those coaches to make the playoffs. Remarkably, Eakins had the third-longest tenure (113 games) of all seven.
The Oilers were so trigger-happy hiring and firing coaches, it’s pretty easy to see why they had such little success during that time. How can a team establish a style and identity when they have someone new leading them nearly every other season?
Part of the Oilers’ problem was management. The upheaval behind Edmonton’s bench mirrored the problems in its front office. The Oilers replaced their general manager three times in seven seasons from 2008 to 2015. Each GM wants to pick a coach whose philosophy best falls in line with how they believe a team should be run, so it’s no surprise the franchise changed coaches so many times.
The Oiler general manager at the time, Craig MacTavish, even told the media such when he fired Eakins’ predecessor Ralph Krueger,
“During the process of me conducting those interviews, I recognized I was trying to add a coach that was more closely aligned with the way I wanted to run the team than I was in supporting Ralph and the head coach of our team at the time,” MacTavish said.”
Eakins stepped into a situation where he was just another coach to walk in a revolving door of coaches, and the one he replaced was well-liked by the players. No wonder he failed.
It’s reasonable to believe that the stability of the Ducks’ front office with Murray and the patient ownership of Henry and Susan Samueli will help Eakins succeed compared to his time with the Oilers.
Ducks Can Be Patient
Part of that patience is understanding that the Ducks are (hopefully) at the bottom of their fall and have nowhere to go but up. Rather than measuring Eakins’ success by the binary measure of playoffs or no playoffs, Murray should be satisfied with steps in the right direction.
Eakins still has to successfully transition the Ducks to a faster style of play, something they struggled with last season under Randy Carlyle. That will take time, even with the infusion of young talent, many of whom have already been successful with Eakins as their coach in San Diego.
That doesn’t mean it’s OK for the Ducks to go five seasons without making the playoffs again either. Considering they have a young franchise goaltender in John Gibson, experienced forwards like Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg as well as a strong top-three on defense in Cam Fowler, Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm, it’s justifiable to expect them to make the playoffs again by 2020-21.
Although Ducks fans probably don’t want to hear it, if it takes Eakins two or three seasons to have the Ducks playing spring hockey again, that’s fine.
Make Sure He Has a Defensively Competent Assistant
A significant mark on Eakins’ coaching record has been defense. In a 2015 article, Edmonton Journal Columnist David Staples criticized Eakins’ knowledge of his own players and their abilities:
“But he evidently didn’t watch nearly enough video of them. That was his first mistake. If he had, he would have seen how sorely lacking their fundamental defensive skills were. His second mistake was having the ambition of playing a more complex defensive scheme when many of his players were lost when it came to basic things like shoulder-checking, talking to one another on the ice and staying on the right side of their man in the defensive zone,”(from, ‘Ex-Oilers coach Dallas Eakins is perfectly correct about exactly why he got fired’ – The Edmonton Journal – 12/15/15).
Even in San Diego, Eakins’ teams have struggled a little defensively. In 2018-19, the Gulls were ranked No. 12 of 31 AHL teams in shots against in the regular season. They also played eight fewer games due to a rule that allows some Western Conference AHL teams to play 68 games rather than the customary 76 the rest of the league plays.
The Gulls average of 31.5 shots against per game adjusted to a 76-game schedule balloons their shot total to 2,401 against. That moves the Gulls from No. 11 to No. 25 in shots allowed when you adjust the other 68-game teams’ shots against to 76 games as well.
If you do the same calculation for their goals against number, they drop from No. 14 with 221 goals against to No. 26 with 247 goals against.
It’s clear Eakins’ defensive strategy still needs adjusting.
Is Marty Wilford the Right Guy?
The Ducks and Eakins also have to decide if Marty Wilford is right to continue as Anaheim’s assistant, responsible for helping Eakins with the defense. As Eakins has said, he relies heavily on his assistants:
“My assistant coaches are my greatest resources, and I think head coaches are nothing without their assistants. We try to do everything as a group, but in the end, I have to say yes or no. I have great confidence in my abilities, but I also know I f— up sometimes, too, and you’ve got to be OK with that. You have to get to a point where you realize everyone makes mistakes, you’re going to make them, and you’ve got to keep calm and carry on.”
Wilford assisted Eakins with the Gulls until the 2018-19 season when the Ducks made him one of their assistants. With the Gulls, they had similar defensive deficiencies. However, development is the essential function of AHL teams, and Wilford helped develop Sami Vatanen, Brandon Montour, Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm during their first experience behind the bench in pro hockey.
The goal is to win, and Anaheim didn’t have a great defensive year last season. They ended in the middle of the pack in goals against at all strengths, no. 17 in the league. Without the robust combination of Gibson and backup Ryan Miller, it could’ve been worse because Anaheim finished no. 25 in the league in shots against. Even worse, they finished no. 27 in the league in high danger chances against.
Though they improved when Murray stepped in as head coach, and Wilford is not totally responsible for the team’s poor defensive performance, if the Ducks continue to struggle defensively, they can’t hesitate to replace him with someone who can help Eakins with the defense.
Finding Eakins’ Replacement in San Diego
One of Eakins’ biggest selling points is his experience developing many of the Ducks players in the AHL. Now that he’s the head coach, Murray needs to find someone new to develop future Ducks players.
Murray and the Ducks are known for being patient with their prospects, rather than rushing them to the NHL. That worked exceptionally well when Eakins was the Gulls’ coach. If the organization is going to continue that strategy, Murray has to be sure his AHL coach will be up to the task.
There have been no mentions yet about who will replace Eakins in San Diego, but it’s an important decision for Murray to make.
Eakins has been the favored candidate to be Anaheim’s next head coach for a while now. As long as the Ducks are patient with him and make the proper decisions to support him, hiring Eakins will be a significant turning point for the team. There’s no reason to think experienced management and ownership will make the same mistakes that Oilers management did, but we will have to wait and see.