EDMONTON – The new coach of the Edmonton Oilers has already delivered a message to his new team: get fit or get out.
“I think there may some big adjustments for the players, with me coming in here,” Dallas Eakins said at his introductory press conference.
“I want players to be so fit that a forward, if I ask him to play 26 minutes that night, he’s going to play 26 minutes at a high level. If we’re in a Stanley Cup playoff game and we’re in quadruple overtime, he will still be firing on all cylinders.
“That is something that I’m passionate about that will be probably a bit of a challenge on the buy-in. But it’s non-negotiable, and there will be buy-in.”
Eakins, who replaces the fired Ralph Krueger, comes to the Oilers after spending four years as an AHL coach in Toronto, where he led the Marlies to the 2012 Calder Cup final.
That’s where the 46-year-old caught the eye of Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish, who had gone up against him as the then-coach of the Chicago Wolves.
“He was getting players to do things that as a coach I knew were very difficult to get players to do,” said MacTavish.
“I always felt that the teams that were most prepared off the face-off before the puck was going to drop had a real residual effect on their overall team game. Their teams, every time that puck dropped, were very well-prepared.”
After interviewing Eakins at a Toronto hotel, MacTavish said Monday he quickly realized it would make more sense to hire him as a head coach than an associate on Krueger’s staff.
Eakins was considered an up-and-coming name in NHL coaching circles. He reportedly drew interest from the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks, and MacTavish knew he had to move quickly.
“He had too much polish and pedigree not to land one of the NHL jobs available,” MacTavish said.
Eakins is the fourth coach in the past five seasons for the Oilers, who have not made the playoffs since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2006.
He said one of the reasons he wanted to come to Edmonton was the team’s young and gifted line-up.
That roster that includes No. 1 picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov along with Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz. His guidance of young players like Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri in Toronto played a role in the Oilers hiring him.
“The pieces that are currently in place with this team excited me,” Eakins said. “It’s definitely a team that has potential to do some special things.”
Eakins said his coaching style—he credits Roger Neilson and Paul Maurice as main influences—isn’t likely to change much as he moves to the big league.
“I don’t coach a team,” he said. “I coach anywhere from 23 to 27 individuals.
“The way you coach players now is you get them one-on-one. You grab them for lunch, you hit them at the coffee machine. It’s small group meetings, it’s one-on-one meetings and it’s constant. It’s every day.
“You’ve got to know their triggers. You have to look under a lot of stones sometimes to find out what makes a guy tick. But once you’ve got it, you can really help push him in the right direction.”
He promised fast, aggressive hockey.
“I want to be able to push the pace as high as we can, not only with our speed and our skill but our fitness level.
“When we have the puck we are going to challenge the other team with that kind of game. But as soon as we lose the puck, we’re going to push the pace to get it back.”
Never more than an NHL journeyman, Eakins said he put his nights as a healthy scratch to good use.
“I wasn’t just sitting upstairs eating popcorn,” he said. “I was taking notes.”
Eakins got a couple congratulatory shout-outs from his old organization.
“Congrats to (Eakins) on getting the job in Edmonton. Great man, great coach,” tweeted Leafs defenceman Mike Kostka.
Former Leafs general manager Brian Burke added his own tweet.
“Congratulations to Dallas Eakins. He has worked very hard for this opportunity. An excellent young coach.”
He also has a wicked deadpan.
Reminded by one reporter of his 120-game, scoreless NHL career, Eakins responded without even the flicker of a smile: “Coaches were holding me back.”
He turned that sense of humour and his passion for fitness on reporters once more as the questions and answers came to an end.
“Enjoy those doughnuts, guys,” he said. “It’s the last time you’ll see those.”