The cat is out of the bag. Dallas Eakins seems set to be the head coach of the Anaheim Ducks for another season or more.
It’s news that perhaps some fans would find disappointing, and others would find concerning. Afterall, Dallas has led the team to some of the worst seasons in franchise history. Some poor form that even included a historic losing streak this season and historically bad – in NHL history – shot metrics in another.
However, team results are a far cry from the impact a coach can have on a team. After all, it is a team game, and it takes all facets of a team to win or lose a game. Or many, many, games as it were. A coach’s impact can be in the leadership they provide. The development of players. A coach needs to be a teacher, and this is doubly true of a developing team of youths.
So, in saying that, one must look at the game plan the Ducks play. Most often, we see them employ a 1-2-2 forecheck on the offensive end. We can delve into it, however overall, it’s a standard offensive system. There’s nothing notable about and no innovation. What that suggests is that with a stronger player group the results may improve. It also suggests that Dallas may not have the chops to innovate and create the best possible system for the players he has. This is perhaps not an issue in the next season or two but may become one when the Ducks eventually push up the standings and attempt to challenge for the conference finals and beyond.
One consideration of playing simple and well-established systems is that Eakins may be creating his own “branding” as a development coach. Every coach who follows in his footsteps are going to use these systems at some point in a season or a game. Having players be able to swap in and out of different systems is a necessity in an ever-changing environment, and likely a boon in the right hands. The lack of innovation here, could be a directive of the managers above him, to build a foundational platform for the future. For Eakins himself, it could show an awareness that his time as a head coach is unlikely to be as a Stanley Cup winning coach, but as the progenitor of a culture and style leading into a Stanley Cup window.
Perhaps a wrinkle in this method of coaching is the on the other side of the puck. Defensive systems have always been a critique of Dallas Eakins coaching style, going back to the “swarm” defense he attempted to employ with the Oilers. The Ducks defense over the past three seasons has been a train wreck which is consistently amongst the worst in the league. The toll it’s taken on former star netminder John Gibson is immeasurable, as he’s failed to maintain even league average net-minding over this span. This perhaps isn’t entirely on Eakins style, however, it can be said that the past 4 seasons have seen Gibson face a higher percentage of scoring attempts and high-danger attempts, than he did in his quality seasons.
Additionally, players are seemingly often out of position, and their errant passing in their own zone leads to turnover after turnover. In generating offence, they have a predisposition to the long stretch pass, which again has led to turnovers. Is this a lack of skill and execution from the players or a failure on behalf of the system? If it is poor execution, would not a simpler breakout with perhaps short passes be more effective? It’s one thing to build on players speed, but another to use it effectively.
On the teaching and development front, the scope of Eakins mark on the Ducks is immeasurable. He’s been with the Ducks franchise in one form or another for the better part of a decade. Guiding players through the AHL and now the NHL. The state of the current team is as much on Eakins as any other long term front office manager.
Again, starting on offense, the list of players Eakins has “developed” is about average maybe. Troy Terry is the obvious candidate having skated for him in the AHL and NHL, and now shooting over 20% in the NHL. However, it’s worth noting that Terry was a fringe NHL player often dumped for the first few seasons of his NHL career. It’s only this past season with his burgeoning shot percentage that he’s finally stuck. There’s no doubt he’s the flagship player to claim development under Eakins tenure, however, what that looks like is still up in the air. Perhaps once the shooting percentage stabilizes, we’ll have a stronger understanding.
Trevor Zegras is another who seemingly has yet to put a foot wrong. He’s a talent, and everyone he’s played with has performed well. Even the much-maligned Derek Grant has scored while on Zergas’ line. When going by a per 60 minutes rate, Zegras has performed better in terms of goals for, goals against, expected goals for percentage, scoring chances for percentage, and perhaps as a result, stronger on-ice save and shooting percentages. All of which perhaps adds some method to the seeming madness of Eakins line juggling.
However, with the good comes the bad. Most of the Ducks veteran players have seen their scoring decline. Almost all the other young players have not shown improvement. Players like Sam Steel and Isac Lundestrom have gone from hype machines to afterthoughts. It’s one thing to “develop” top-10 draft talents and another to develop everyone else. With that said, it is fair to say that players like Steel have improved on the overall play, but the lack of offensiveness is concerning. One wonders if they would have broken out if they had been given more offensive time either on the power play or with soft minutes at even strength. Unfortunately, the time for that is most likely long past.
On the defensive end, the list of prospects who have developed under Eakins is a thin list if there are any at all. Jacob Larsson, Josh Mahura, and Brendan Guhle headline the list of once hyped defensive prospects. Players like Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson declined from their once high ratings. Even recent top-5 draft selection Jamie Drysdale has seen his fair share of rightfully deserved criticism. Who knows what he will be as he grows, but the chances of him being a defensive presence seem to be slipping by the game.
Taken together, it’s hard to say that Eakins has excelled in any aspect of the game. He seems to be a better coach today than when he took over the team. Or at least he hasn’t made as many poor decisions in terms of calling timeouts or reviewing calls with the officials. That shows some growth. If you buy into him also not creating systems like the swarm, and buy into Terry’s scoring, you could even say he’s shown growth in the teaching aspect of the role. For a team which seems to have no real desire to win next season, bringing him back isn’t perhaps as terrible a call as it would seem at face value. Certainly, teams searching for victory and Stanley Cups would likely search for someone different, however, that is not the Ducks next season.
In that respect it’s probably safe to suggest that Eakins will be coaching for his career. He will have a charter to follow from the Pat Verbeek, and as much as we fans would like to judge on wins and losses, that charter is far more likely to be related to developing the Ducks young players. Afterall, the Ducks will be filled to the brim with players on the ELC’s next season. If those players improve, the likelihood of the Ducks climbing the standings in future season improves. Whether Eakins continues with the Ducks or elsewhere in the NHL then hinges on his ability to improve these players. There’s no harm in being known as a development coach, as there are always teams in the NHL who will be rebuilding and developing. Creating a coaching brand that is to be the foundation of future cup teams is a strong brand to have.
It’s also worth noting that Eakins has coached quite a few lottery seasons in the NHL and this season looks to be another drafting in the top 10. It may not necessarily be the reason Eakins will be brought back, however, next years draft class is monstrous at the top end. The Ducks recently kickstarted rebuild would go into overdrive if Conor Bedard or Matvei Michkov were added to the roster. Just imagine a spine of Zegras, Bedard and McTavish. It’s worth salivating over, and with the Ducks current roster, their hopes of claiming many new prospects next season, and perhaps with a lottery winning coach, the dream could very well be alive.
One further thought, is that this news comes not long after Ryan Getzlaf announced his retirement. Was news of Dallas Eakins contract extension on the wire, and that was the final nail in coffin of the captain’s career? Probably not, but it’s a narrative that might be fun to explore. Have at it.