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Head Coach Hunt: Dallas Eakins

A look at what the San Diego Gulls bench boss could bring to Anaheim

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2013 NHL Draft Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Dallas Eakins

Age: 52

NHL Coaching Record: 36-63-14

AHL Coaching Record: 311-209-64

Dallas Eakins has driven some divisive opinions within the Ducks fanbase ever since he signed a multi-year extension (rumored to be three years) to continue coaching the San Diego Gulls.

On one side are the people who look at his track record in the AHL as a coach who has led the Gulls to a 154-95-23 record over four seasons and who’s teams tend to play a high-octane, exciting game with players who almost universally rave about the type of coach and general human being he is.

On the other side are people who see a disastrous stint behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers deploying a confusing and flimsy defensive scheme to go along with a history of not winning big games when it matters with the Gulls.

Wherever you stand on Eakins as a coach, it’s impossible to deny that he is one of the front-runners for the job in Anaheim purely based on the current state of the Ducks organization. From the moment Murray extended the Gulls coach, the wheels were set in motion for Eakins to assume the reigns of a team attempting to overhaul their image.

On the same day the extension for Eakins was announced, the Ducks made the decision to promote his most trusted assistant, Marty Wilford to Anaheim alongside Randy Carlyle. Wilford has been credited with helping develop several of the Ducks defensive regulars over the years in both San Diego and Norfolk, including Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore, Marcus Pettersson, and Brandon Montour.


Not only that, but the Ducks roster will likely be populated by a large continent of players that Eakins has directly coached at some point over the last four years: Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Kiefer Sherwood, Max Comtois, Max Jones, Isac Lundestrom, John Gibson, Jacob Larsson, and Josh Mahura. That’s potentially half the team that has had experience with him, not to mention the time Eakins has spent coaching the veterans in preseason training camp.

With the regular season success of the Gulls, the contract extension signed, and the promotion of his best assistant, General Manager Bob Murray has set the stage for Dallas Eakins to simply walk through the door at Honda Center and get to work.

These are only the logistical reasons for promoting Eakins. However, for some weird reason, people care about team results as well. Who would have thought?

The San Diego Gulls under Eakins play a high-event style of game based upon quick, well-supported breakouts, entering the zone with speed and a trailing player in open ice, and limiting dump-ins to line changes and last resort options. This is a night-and-day difference from the Carlyle system of quick but weak and unsupported breakouts, blueline straddling-forwards, and a low, grinding, cycle game primarily brought about by attempted dump-ins.

The power play is where this difference is truly highlighted. The Carlyle-Ducks system with the man advantage was built upon passing the puck around the perimeter, waiting for the defense to make a mistake, and if not, taking a low-percentage point shot. The Eakins system showcases some of the most successful power play structures in the NHL. Players are constantly moving their feet and skating into open ice in divided up areas of the ice, attempting to pull the defense out of position as opposed to counting on them to do it themselves. It’s about zone entries at speed and cross-ice puck movement with a collapsing man structure to get the netminder moving laterally, creating a sense of claustrophobia for the defending skaters.

Both current and former players also talk about how Eakins emphasizes individual skill and stepping back (to an extent) to let his players work around a basic framework of play, as opposed to the rigid, structured tactics preferred by many coaches of yesteryear. With just some general guidelines built around breakouts, zone entries, and general roles for players on the ice, this is a system that treats players as the professionals that they are.

Professional hockey players didn’t get to where they are today because they had no idea how to take the puck out of their own zone and try and score a goal. This is a system intended to bring out the best of individual player skill and creativity in an effort to increase scoring. Safe to say, the Ducks have been extremely lacking in the scoring and creativity department for years.

As evidenced by some of the games in this year’s Calder Cup Playoffs, the Gulls have the ability to score at a ridiculous pace and seemingly at will when they are all on the same page and rolling. It’s the type of game that Murray thought Carlyle could transition to but failed to do so.

However, Eakins is not without his flaws, flaws that very well could cause significant issues at the NHL level and are enough to pump the breaks on the hype train.

Right off the bat, anyone who has watched more than a few Gulls games over the years will be able to tell you that defense isn’t exactly a strong suit of an Eakins system. No, this isn’t “The Swarm™”, a confusing and controversial defensive system that was an abject failure with the Oilers. That system was abandoned long before Eakins was kicked out of Edmonton.

But it is a system that has some parallels to Carlyle’s—a system that tends to overload to one side of the ice and surround the puck carrier in an effort to quickly regain possession. This tactic sounds good in theory, but is exposed by leaving at least one player open on one side of the ice that the attacking team can simply dish the puck to which leads to scoring chances.

His players also tend to lose track of players in the zone because they are so narrowly focused on attacking the puck carrier. Granted, Eakins hasn’t had exactly elite defensive talent to work with outside of maybe Theodore and Montour. But a tendency to give up a high volume of shots, especially early in the season doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

There is also the issue of Eakins’ record in big games. Sure, these tend to be small sample sizes, but there has been a noticeable issue of his teams having trouble getting the job done when it counts. Eakins AHL teams have been to the Calder Cup Finals once (2012, swept by Jon Cooper’s Norfolk Admirals) and haven’t made it past the second round outside of that run.

Last season, San Diego needed just one win in their final three games to clinch a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs. They lost all three. More recently, the Gulls completely fell apart defensively with 10.5 seconds remaining in game three of the second round to allow the Bakersfield Condors to tie the game. They collapsed even further defensively allowing the overtime winner just 39 seconds in.

This is the exact kind of thing that led to Murray dismissing Bruce Boudreau: an inability to get the job done when it counts. However, with the Gulls playing very well overall in this year’s Calder Cup Playoffs, whether or not that reputation of no clutch sticks around remains to be seen.

Finally, it would be short-sighted to ignore Eakins tenure with the Oilers. Eakins had a successful tenure with the Toronto Marlies including a Calder Cup Finals run and a 157-114-41 record over four seasons before being hired by Edmonton. Not too dissimilar from his tenure in San Diego to this point.

Edmonton Oilers v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Eric Stephens of The Athletic wrote a wonderful piece looking into Dallas Eakins as a person and coach, diving into the things that went wrong in Edmonton:

“The biggest thing I took out of that was, I was like, ‘Man, Dallas, you fucked that up,’” he said of his takeaway from those 18 months.

“I was brought in there to change a culture,” he recalled. “And I was dead set on doing it. I had different options. And as the head coach in the end, I picked the option and I picked the wrong one. Instead of going in and planting the seeds and letting the culture develop over two or three years, managing it, bringing it along and connecting and reasoning and all these different things and, every once in a while, stomping your feet, I went in there with a fucking blowtorch. And I burned it down.

“When you do that, I was the last guy standing basically. It was me against everybody.”

Murray has talked about the need of a culture change in the Anaheim locker room, repeatedly telling fans and the media that some players over the last couple of seasons have accepted losing and mediocrity instead of demanding better. It’s one of the main reasons Murray extended Jakob Silfverberg for five years.

One would hope Eakins has learned from his attempts to change things up in Edmonton; he certainly has said as much. But saying he’s learned and actually demonstrating it are entirely different actions.

However, many of the failures in Edmonton certainly can’t be blamed squarely on Eakins. He had Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and a squad of borderline AHLers making up the team. There is likely no coach in existence who could have made that team respectable. No coach did until they drafted Connor McDavid three years later and PDOd their way to the playoffs in 2017.

There is plenty to like about Dallas Eakins as the potential next leader of the Ducks. His personable reputation and outstanding communication skills, his high-tempo, modern system focusing on increasing scoring, prizing creativity and individual skill within a team context, and his well-known affinity for introducing advanced stats and analytics into the overall decision-making process.

There are also several concerns with him, including his team’s defensive issues, the inability to win big games when needed, and his history of trying to force a radical culture change into a resistant locker room.

Eakins does not have a guaranteed job with Anaheim at this point, given the fact that Murray is interviewing current assistant NHL head coaches and the fact that San Diego is still making their playoff charge. But the room has been set and the door is cracked open, ready for Murray to nudge it open the rest of the way and let Eakins walk through.

Whether or not the Ducks General Manager pushes in that direction remains to be seen.