NHL’s new breed of coaches grows with Oilers hiring Dallas Eakins

Dallas Eakins says it in a commanding but calm tone.

“We don’t coach teams, we coach individuals.”

They are words to live by for Eakins and the philosophy has earned him his first NHL head-coaching job with the Edmonton Oilers.

Eakins isn’t alone in the individual approach. The 46-year-old, who got to this level thanks to his success with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies, is part of a new breed of coaches who believe communication with players is key to getting the most out of them.

Call them players’ coaches—like Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh or Adam Oates in Washington. Along with Eakins and many others, they’re setting a new trend, taking a different approach than coaches did even 10 years ago.

“I think a lot of times it has to do with almost job survival,” Montreal Canadiens forward Jeff Halpern said. “Most coaches aren’t going to change their personalities for anything. But at the same time, you have such different types of athletes now and because the money is so great for young kids growing up, a lot of times you have to find ways to communicate with people.”

That’s not to say gruff coaches like Mike Keenan, John Tortorella, Lindy Ruff and Peter Laviolette can’t communicate. Ruff spent 15 seasons in charge of the Buffalo Sabres and is considered a favourite to land another job soon.

But coaches need to evolve along with the players, says Islanders forward Brad Boyes.

“I think players are different the way you come up now,” he said. “It used to be to yell and scream would get the best out of guys, that’s the way it was because that’s the way they had always been. Nowadays there’s so much more involved. Agents are involved at young ages, parents are very involved at young ages. I think the kids are just brought up differently. You try to talk to them through adversity (rather) than trying to yell and scream to get the best out of them.”

It’s a trend that began before most of these coaches even considered their next steps after playing. During his 19-year career that spanned from the 1980s into the 2000s, Oates didn’t like being yelled at. As he and others from the same generation step into coaching, those experiences have shaped their styles.

“There’s no perfect animal. I just really feel that if I’m not happy with a guy, I don’t have to yell at him to let him know,” Oates said during the regular season. “I can talk to him. He’s still a pro. You’ve got to be a pro. That’s what we are. We’re pros now, and it’s a different game than before.”

Oates’ contemporaries include Kirk Muller of the Carolina Hurricanes, Kevin Dineen of the Florida Panthers, Peter DeBoer of the New Jersey Devils and Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes. And Eakins, who learned from the late Roger Neilson that he would have to make his mark as a coach because he “wasn’t a very good player.”

Whether or not a coach was a good player doesn’t necessarily matter, though it doesn’t hurt. Islanders forward Keith Aucoin played with the Marlies during the NHL lockout and cited Eakins’ playing career as one reason he’s able to get messages across so effectively.

“He knows when to get in somebody’s face and he knows when a team’s going through a tough stretch or a few tough games that it happens,” Aucoin said. “He was so knowledgeable of how hard the game is and he knows what to do.”

Aucoin said Eakins never yelled at him, but that was more because he was playing well. Players don’t mind the tough love approach on occasion, he said, as long as there’s some meaning behind it.

“I don’t think it matters what approach you take, as long as the players respect the reasoning behind it and the hockey smarts behind it,” said Halpern, who most recently played for Michel Therrien in Montreal and Tortorella in New York. “If you’re ranting and raving for no reason, players tend to tune you out right away. But if you’re smart about what you’re saying, there’s a purpose and players are able to kind of look at it and see that there’s a purpose behind it and that it works, players will respond to it.”

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Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner, who played for Eakins with the AHL Marlies, said Eakins’ strength is being approachable to his players.

“If you want to talk to Dallas, he’s not a very hard guy to approach and that’s what makes him so good,” Gardiner said Tuesday from Campbellville, Ont., where he was the drawmaster for the $1-million North America Cup harness race. “Guys are willing to go into him and he’s accepting to that.

“He’ll tell you exactly what you need to work on or what you’re doing well and to keep doing that. Most of the time he’ll be positive and when he has to be he’ll get on you for it.”

Halpern pointed out that even as Tortorella was combative with media members and stern with players, he wouldn’t hesitate to be direct with his criticisms. Same goes for Therrien.

“Sometimes it’s great when coaches are able to kind of express what they’re thinking because as players a lot of times you’re left to make it a guessing game,” Halpern said.

For Eakins’ players, there’s no guesswork. Aucoin recalled his first meeting with Eakins and the simple message that he wouldn’t treat the 34-year-old veteran any differently than his younger teammates like Gardiner and centre Nazem Kadri.

Getting a lot out of those young players played a role in Eakins getting his first NHL head-coaching gig, Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish said. In hours-long interviews with Eakins, it was clear he was suited to run a team, MacTavish added.

Eakins makes no secret of how he views his job.

“People always ask about coaching the team and I correct them very quickly: We coach 23 to 25 individuals and it’s an interesting job,” Eakins said last week at the OHL awards ceremony in Toronto. “These individuals are delicate pieces of a machine, of a big engine, and they all need to be treated differently and handled with different care. A coach’s job is to get to these individuals, find out what’s happened in their past, what’s going on in the present and where are we going to take these young men in the future.”

In the NHL, some are not young men. Some are grizzled veterans with more than Eakins’ 120 games of experience.

But that’s where Eakins’ approach proves valuable. Citing Eakins’ words, Dale Hunter of the London Knights emphasized that coaching is coaching no matter how old players are.

“They all want to be on the first line, they all want to be on the first power play,” Hunter said. “It’s like, ‘How are you going to get there? How are you going to stay there?’ It’s trying to get them better to certain levels. That’s why you win.”

There’s nothing set in stone that only player-friendly coaches can win. Far from it. But as the league gets younger, progressive, less-aggressive coaches are enjoying more success.

“I think society’s changed where you talk it out,” said Hunter, who coached the Capitals for the bulk of the 2011-12 season. “You’ve got to talk to the players a lot more and communicate with them.…Now it’s more teaching, communication, fundamentals.”

In junior and then in the AHL, where Eakins built his reputation behind the bench, much of the job is teaching. In the NHL, that’s only part of the complex list of responsibilities, which includes managing superstar egos.

Of course that only accentuates the importance of individual coaching, which could be vital to Eakins’ success in Edmonton.

“I think Dallas said it best, you’re coaching individuals, it’s about finding how to get best out of every individual,” Boyes said. “That’s what good coaches now are trying to do.”

—Canadian Press sports reporter Dan Ralph in Toronto contributed to this report.