The wait is over: Dallas Eakins has been named head coach of the Anaheim Ducks, becoming the tenth bench boss in the young franchise’s history.
After reports sprouting up on Sunday afternoon that Eakins was the last man standing in general manager Bob Murray’s head coaching search, Anaheim made the news official on Monday morning, with Murray stating in a press release “Dallas is an outstanding head coach who has worked well with our players since joining the organization four years ago. He is a tremendous leader and strategist, and deserves this opportunity.”
The road back to hockey’s highest level has been long and winding for Eakins, who last manned an NHL bench in 2014, where his brief tenure with the Edmonton Oilers was aborted after 113 games of misery.
Since that time, all Eakins has done is turn the San Diego Gulls into one of the most highly-respected developmental programs in the AHL. Nearly every player who has gone through the Ducks’ farm system during his tenure has extolled his virtues, citing a modern yet personable approach, something that was at times amiss in Edmonton. Personality can only get you so far, however, and Eakins has also done his fair share of winning in San Diego. The Gulls advanced to the Pacific Division Final in each of his first two seasons, and they fell just short of advancing to the Calder Cup Final last season where their roster was in constant flux due to an injury-riddled parent club in Anaheim.
The stakes are higher now. Anaheim is in the midst of re-inventing itself as a franchise, all the way down from its on-ice personnel to its training staff. Eakins will bring a sense of continuity, given that he’s already coached a chunk of the Ducks’ roster, but he will also inject some much needed energy.
A staleness began to creep in during Randy Carlyle’s tenure, and while injuries are the likelier culprit behind his ultimate demise, there was a sense that the Ducks’ fate was inexorably tied to how far John Gibson could take them. The since-dismissed Carlyle allocated monster usage to his veteran stars like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler during the first two years of his tenure, perhaps to the point of no return. Aging curves, of course, but Kesler is set to miss all of next season after hip surgery, while Perry and his surgically repaired knee are about to be shipped out of town. Getzlaf will be the last man standing of that trio, but even he showed the first signs of decline in 2018-19 on the eve of his age 34 season. That era of the big, bad, bruising Ducks has essentially evaporated in one fell swoop.
For Eakins, the challenge in year one is clear-cut: re-invigorate a roster that seemed totally listless at times last season, shepherd along the young core, and make a push for the playoffs. As much as Murray wants to drill home that a re-tool is afoot, the Ducks are not a franchise that can withstand missing the playoffs regularly. If a berth cannot be assured, then there better damn well be some excitement that comes with it to satiate a palpably anxious fan base. To the extent that Eakins’ first year back in the NHL will be about getting his proverbial feet wet, the win-loss column will not simply be cast aside. Successfully accomplishing the task of maximizing a largely unproven roster filled with wide-eyed youngsters thus becomes paramount.
On that young core: there is a distinct possibility that the Ducks begin the 2019-20 campaign with most, if not all of Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Comtois, Max Jones, Daniel Sprong, and Kiefer Sherwood on their roster. Grand total of NHL games played between them: 209. And that’s just on the front end. On the blueline, Eakins will have to lean in to the equally unproven Brendan Guhle and Jacob Larsson. Even if not all of the young forwards make the team, Anaheim’s new coach will still have a good chunk of his roster learning the ropes of the league on the fly. With Kesler’s injury, Steel is almost guaranteed the third line center spot, while Terry will be counted on to provide offense in the top-9. Meanwhile, a medley of Jones, Comtois, Sprong, and Sherwood should populate Anaheim’s forward depth, and how they fare in consistent NHL minutes will have an out-sized impact as well.
Youngsters aside, Eakins will also have to find ways to re-ignite the more known quantities on his roster. Cam Fowler struggled at times last year, while Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm were not their usual selves when split apart from their traditional pairing. Getzlaf, the bedrock of the last decade of Ducks’ hockey, needs more support as he enters the leaner years of his career. Much of that will depend on how Rickard Rakell can rebound from a tough season, or if Ondrej Kase could stay possibly stay healthy. John Gibson’s minutes will also have to be meticulously managed, as he was clearly run into the ground last season as the Ducks desperately tried to hang on to a shot at the playoffs.
Perhaps the biggest area where Eakins can immediately improve the club is on the power play. In Carlyle’s final season, Anaheim could never quite stick to any setup and often seemed far too fond of low-efficiency point shots. Cross-ice one-timers, which have become the norm across the NHL, felt like a rare luxury item whenever the Ducks somehow managed to conjure one up.
Anaheim ranked 27th in expected-goals for per 60 on the power play last season — a calculation of expected output based on shot quality — indicating that their sheer rate of high-danger chances (ranked 16th overall) were probably not as dangerous as their ranking might suggest. San Diego’s power play ranked tenth in goals per game at 5-on-4 last season, already an encouraging sign. What’s more encouraging from a Ducks’ perspective, however, is that Eakins seemed to be far more creative, utilizing set faceoff plays with multiple one-timer options:
Really like this power play faceoff setup from the Gulls. Didn’t work out cleanly, but can potentially lead to a wide open one-timer if done properly: pic.twitter.com/KH0v4uDGsV— Felix Sicard (@Felix_Sicard) May 23, 2019
Although Eakins’ creativity would potentially aid Anaheim’s man advantage, simply adhering to more modern trends should already be more than enough. And that’s the general feel around Eakins. Is he a bang-on, home-run hire for Murray? Even with the most nuanced of AHL film research, it’s almost impossible to say. At the very least, however, the Ducks finally falling in line with industry standards regarding tactics and utilization should present a significant upgrade. Even if Eakins only brings a fraction of the modernity many expect him to do, that would still present an upgrade over his predecessor. This new chapter in both Eakins’ coaching career and the Ducks’ franchise is still yet to be written, but you can bet it will be a hit with the kids.