Seventeen years ago, the Quebec Nordiques, a year away from becoming the Colorado Avalanche, had a tough decision to make. The organization, which was chock-full of emerging young stars, had just fired veteran coach Pierre Page and very easily could have replaced him with any number of experienced bench bosses. But GM Pierre Lacroix and the Nords went the opposite route and hired Marc Crawford, a young coach who had been running the Maple Leafs’ American League affiliate. Less than two years after they did that, Colorado won its first Stanley Cup.
That sequence of events popped into my head this week as the rumor mill churned out whispers the Los Angeles Kings were interested in making veteran former coach and world-class sourpuss Darryl Sutter the permanent replacement for the recently dismissed Terry Murray. As THN senior writer Ken Campbell wrote earlier this week, the idea that Sutter – who never met a smile he couldn’t turn upside down – represents the perfect elixir for what ails the struggling Kings is one that doesn’t sit right with me. You can’t tell me the problem with young stars such as Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar is that they haven’t had a miserable taskmaster breathing down their backs.
No, the Kings need their own version of Crawford – someone who represents the future of the coaching profession, not its ancient, authoritative origins as does Sutter. They need someone very much like Toronto’s current AHL coach, Dallas Eakins, a guy who rapidly is creating a sterling reputation for himself with his ability to challenge and communicate with players.
It isn’t just the Kings who would benefit from the cachet Eakins is building in the hockey world. The Canadiens, who currently are meandering near the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race under the somnambulant Jacques Martin, would have their young players infused with the confidence and mindset Eakins brings to the Marlies team. The Avalanche and Blue Jackets also could be in the market for a new coach and could do far worse than the 44-year-old, who stresses physical fitness in a way few coaches before him ever have.
“Fitness is so many different levels for me,” said Eakins, who is highly regarded inside the Leafs organization for what he’s done preparing Toronto’s young prospects for life in the NHL. “It helps me be a better husband, father and a much better coach. I’m not saying anything about any other coaches, but I personally have a problem going to players and harping on their fitness levels if I’m not fit myself.”
Eakins recently put himself through a 160-kilometer race through the Colorado mountains and uses his willingness to commit wholeheartedly to a physical program to provide an example to young players.
“I always tell players whether we’re in the weight room or on the ice, ‘I’ll never ask you to train, eat or do anything I’m not prepared to do myself’,” Eakins said. “They see a work ethic in me and I think it filters down. It also filters up – I see them working hard in practice, it gets me jacked up.”
A disciple of legendary coach Roger Neilson, Eakins sees himself as a manager of 25 disparate personalities and a preparer of players to coach themselves through high-pressure playoff situations. To that end, he pushes his players as hard as possible throughout training camp and the regular season with the singular goal of being the best-conditioned team at the most crucial moments.
“You should not be training for a 45-second shift or only 18 minutes a night,” he said. “What’s going to happen when you get caught out on the ice for a minute and 15 seconds, or a minute-and-a-half? I want to know that, when we’re in the Calder Cup final, in Game 7, and we’re in quadruple-overtime, I want to know right then we’ve got the other team right by the balls, because we are way fitter than they are.”
The Kings, or any other NHL franchise, can take a chance on a coaching retread any time they want. However, the future of coaching lies with guys like Eakins – and a team in need of a bump in competitiveness would be wise to snap him up before it’s too late.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.