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Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins (J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins (J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)

Is Dallas Eakins the next AHL-to-NHL coaching success story? Add to ...

As the coach of the only Toronto-based pro hockey team in the playoffs in the last three years, it's understandable that Dallas Eakins is getting some attention.

Even more so now that a championship will be on the line for the Toronto Marlies.

And there are still four openings for NHL jobs at the moment, with three of them Canadian based teams: Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Washington.

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The Canadiens job is out of the question because of the language issue, and the Flames one appears earmarked for either Bob Hartley or Troy Ward.

Eakins, however, may land an interview (and possibly a job) with the Oilers or Capitals (who drafted him in 1985) once the AHL playoffs are over.

He could also wind up back with the Leafs affiliate again, something those in the organization say he'd be fine with for another year or two.

The Marlies bid for the Calder Cup, meanwhile, kicks off on Friday in a series that will put a significant spotlight on Eakins's abilities. His team is the underdog against the Norfolk Admirals as the result of plenty of injuries, creating quite a challenge for a coaching staff that has done an excellent job through three rounds.

Eakins's players all raved this week about how much of their success is due to those behind the bench.

"He’s a players’ coach, there’s no doubt about it," said Philippe Dupuis, who credits Eakins with turning his season around after a difficult start with the Leafs. "I’ve rarely been on a team where every guy actually likes the coach and wants to win for him. Every team, there’s always like five or six guys that don’t. On this team, everyone likes Dally. Everyone likes the coaching staff."

"I think his biggest thing is he’s honest with the players," assistant coach Derek King added. "He doesn’t BS anything. He tells you how it is. I think his honesty is a big part of him having success. Guys buy into it; guys like playing for him."

Eakins's back story is hard not to like. A career minor-leaguer who only played 120 NHL games (but won AHL and IHL championships), he earned a reputation as a hard worker wherever he went, often impressing his big league teammates when he was called up.

Even when he would be sitting as a healthy scratch for long periods, Eakins was doing bag skates and working harder than anyone, something King said he saw often when they were roommates together briefly with the Leafs.

"And look what he’s done with it," King said. "Hats off to him. I think he’ll have success anywhere he goes."

King, who played 800-plus NHL games and had three 70-point seasons with the New York Islanders, was retired and out of hockey completely when Eakins was hired for the Marlies job and came calling for an assistant.

He jumped at the chance to work with his old friend, who he describes as "a student of the game" going back to his days as a junior player in Peterborough when Eakins had a close relationship with Roger Nielson.

“When the opportunity came, I couldn’t say no," King said. "Especially to Dallas.”

Eakins's strengths as a coach have been evident throughout the Marlies playoff run in their own end, as Toronto has allowed just 23 goals in 13 games. They've also continued to be one of the better shorthanded teams after posting the top penalty kill rate (89%) in the AHL all season.

Like many in the hockey world, King doesn't see the NHL as being all that far away for Eakins.

He joked that he only hopes he gets to go with him.

"I think this is just helping his cause," King said of the Marlies playoff success. "Obviously teams like winning coaches. But win or lose, he’s always done the same job. He hasn’t changed anything. And if he wins a Calder Cup, he’ll be the same guy he was when we were out of the playoffs.

"He’s just a real steady, inspirational guy. I can’t think of really anything bad to say about the guy. There’s no flaws really."

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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