Dallas Eakins’s tour around the NHL added yet another stop over the weekend.
The Toronto Marlies head coach has become a coveted name as various teams look for coaching replacements this spring, with the Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks all expected to speak with him before making a hire.
The latest to meet with Eakins was new Oilers‘ GM Craig MacTavish, who was in Toronto as part of the NHL combine last week and took time to pick the brain of the bench boss of the Maple Leafs’ affiliate in a 1-on-1 setting.
What’s different about the Oilers interest in Eakins is that they already have a head coach in Ralph Krueger, who isn’t believed to be on the hot seat.
Instead, Edmonton is trying to add an associate coach who can bring something to the table on the technical side of the game, giving Krueger and current assistants Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith another voice to help develop some of their young talent and win more games next season.
The Oilers have also been looking at recently deposed Canucks assistant Rick Bowness and long-time head coach Paul Maurice, but Bowness is out of the mix after signing on to be Jon Cooper’s associate coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.
Eakins has long maintained that he believes his next step will be as an NHL head coach, noting that he already has two years as an NHL assistant – in 2006-07 and 2007-08 with the Leafs under Maurice – and wasn’t interested in returning to the role.
But what the Oilers are looking for is someone to step in one rung higher as an associate coach – a situation where Eakins would be considered second-in-command and first to take over in case of a firing – and there’s no question the Marlies coach could be an excellent fit with a young, up-and-coming team.
That was believed to be the basis for MacTavish’s sell job, one that can only work if Eakins doesn’t get an offer to be a head coach elsewhere.
Eakins brings a decidedly “new school” approach behind the bench, and as a coach that players rally behind, is more in the mould of someone like Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma than the long list of veteran NHL coaches available right now.
Eakins also spends as much time in the gym and on the bike as many of his players, so he’s no soft hand in the work ethic department. His work with Leafs’ prospect Nazem Kadri, who had a breakthrough year at 22 this season, is proof of that, as their many battles were sometimes difficult but fought constructively every time.
Kadri is just one of nearly a dozen players who improved with the Marlies and eventually contributed to the Leafs in their surprising run this season.
That combination, with the ability to bring a unique, inspiring new voice, is something a lot of teams are looking for, especially considering many of the alternatives are old hands coming off disappointing seasons.
Even so, there’s a lot competition for the three open head coaching jobs, and there’s no guarantee Eakins – who has two years remaining on his Marlies contract but is in an off-season window in which he can pursue opportunities – lands one of them.
The coaching landscape is cluttered with veteran options, with Alain Vigneault, Lindy Ruff and John Tortorella all having coached 800-plus NHL games and the uncertainty in Phoenix potentially making Dave Tippett available as well.
Add in wild cards like Mark Messier and Willie Desjardins potentially taking over in New York and Dallas, respectively, and Eakins’s best bet to step right in as a head coach is probably in Vancouver, where GM Mike Gillis won’t be afraid to go a little off the board to shake things up.
Barring that, however, his most likely destination is going to be Edmonton, where Eakins would serve as Krueger’s right hand man and have a say in guiding the careers of some of the top young talent in the league.
The fact that he has already met with MacTavish about the job speaks to his potential interest in it, even if it would mean putting off a move into a head coaching role for another year.