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Who will step behind Ducks bench as Anaheim continues coaching search?

Some believe Dallas Eakins remains the frontrunner after four seasons with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, but Anaheim has other intriguing options, including a couple of potential first-timers.

By no means was the Ducks’ coaching gig going to be handed to him on a silver platter, but there were those, present company included, who were of the mind that Dallas Eakins’ path back to an NHL bench was clear. With Anaheim searching for a bench boss in the wake of a disappointing season in which Randy Carlyle was canned and GM Bob Murray assumed the title of interim coach, Eakins seemed an obvious fit for a few reasons.

First, Eakins had strung together four successful seasons with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. Not once did Anaheim’s farm club finish below .500 under Eakins’ watch, and after consecutive playoff trips ended in the second round and last season’s post-season miss, the Gulls had their most successful campaign yet when they earned a berth in the conference final in 2018-19, falling two wins short of a chance to play for the Calder Cup. Second, Eakins had experience behind an NHL bench and seemed ripe for a second chance after his brief one-and-a-half season stint with the Edmonton Oilers. And finally, he seemed like he could be the right hire at the right time, a fresh face with new ideas who, despite his aforementioned NHL experience, isn’t exactly a retread who was recently let go by another organization and thrown into the big-league coaching recycling bin.

But not so fast.

Despite the Chicago Wolves ousting the Gulls from the Calder Cup playoffs early last week, no announcement followed that Eakins had the Ducks’ job, and instead of it appearing as though Eakins is a shoo-in for the gig, the field has seemingly grown more crowded.

So, who will Anaheim insert behind the bench next season? Eakins remains an option, but here are four others who could be in the mix:

Lane Lambert
Current: Associate coach, New York Islanders
NHL Experience: N/A

Lambert is a longtime assistant who seems primed to take the next step in his career after standing in coach Barry Trotz’s shadow for the past several seasons. First a part of Trotz’s group with the Nashville Predators in 2011-12, he has since joined the Islanders bench boss in Washington and New York, winning a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2017-18. It was after Washington’s championship victory that some believed Lambert was in line for one of the top jobs in the NHL, but he instead took the baby-step that is an associate coaching gig with Trotz. So, what comes next?

The natural progression would see him become a coach next, and he’d likely bring some defensive structure to a team that was sorely lacking in that area last season. Only six teams allowed more shots against per game and the Ducks’ penalty kill was middling, at best.

Todd Nelson
Current: Asst. Coach, Dallas Stars
NHL Experience: Coach, Edmonton Oilers

Nelson joins Eakins as Ducks candidates with experience as an NHL head coach, and it so happens that the two were behind the exact same bench: it was Nelson who replaced Eakins when he was let go by the Oilers during the 2014-15 campaign. Nelson’s entire tenure behind that bench consisted of 51 games, however, during which time he went 17-25-9, so it’s not as though he or Eakins had much success in Edmonton.

Nelson’s candidacy comes as little surprise, though, as he’s been mentioned as a contender for several jobs at this point and it seems that he, like Lambert, is destined to get a shot at the top job again sometime soon. Nelson did some good work with the Stars’ power play last season, though Dallas’ overall offense tied for third-worst in the NHL.

Rick Bowness
Current: Asst. Coach, Dallas Stars
NHL Experience: Coach, Phoenix Coyotes; New York Islanders; Ottawa Senators; Boston Bruins; Winnipeg Jets

Over the past dozen years, Bowness has had tenures with the Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning, and he joined Montgomery’s staff in Dallas ahead of the current campaign, but not since the pre-lockout NHL has Bowness been an NHL bench boss. Sure, he was an associate coach with the Lightning, but that’s as close as he’s come to the top job since he replaced Bob Francis as the Coyotes coach in 2003-04. Could this be when he makes his return?

What he has going for him is his work with young defenders. He helped mold Victor Hedman with the Lightning and he did a great job with rookie Miro Heiskanen this season. As noted above, too, the Ducks are in need of better defensive structure. Bowness could be the person for the job.

Scott Sandelin
Current: Coach, University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
NHL Experience: N/A

The door was cracked open for college coaches when Dave Hakstol made the move to the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s since been let go, but his hiring saw big-league teams scour the NCAA more thoroughly, which has since led to David Quinn and Jim Montgomery earning bench boss jobs with the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars, respectively. And it might only be a matter of time before we see the next NCAA-to-NHL convert, as Scott Sandelin has drawn interest around the league. The Ducks are the latest to check in on Sandelin, too.

According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, the University of Minnesota-Duluth coach is on Anaheim’s radar and will be interviewed by the club regarding the vacant position. He makes for an intriguing coaching contender given his success in the NCAA, which includes back-to-back national crowns. That’s no small feat.

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