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After Edmonton failures, Eakins has chance to rewrite script with Ducks

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

After an extensive search, Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray has found who will be replacing ... well, himself ... behind the Ducks bench.

Coaching the Ducks for the foreseeable future will be Dallas Eakins, who is mostly known as an AHL coaching wizard and one of a handful of coaches with an embarrassingly brutal stretch with the Edmonton Oilers.

No, Eakins did not right a sinking ship in Edmonton, but how much blame should he receive considering the revolving door behind the Oilers’ bench, whether it be before Eakins’ short stint or after? When Eakins coached his first NHL game with the Oilers in 2013, his No. 1 center was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and his No. 1 defenseman was Justin Schultz.

While both have had mild individual success — Schultz was traded to Pittsburgh during the 2015-16 season and helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups, while Nugent-Hopkins has settled in as a No. 2 center behind Connor McDavid in Edmonton — neither player was ever close to a franchise cornerstone. The Oilers also had Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle (both since traded), but the rest of the roster was filled with role players and fringe NHLers.

The Ducks’ roster is far off from contending, but it’s not nearly the mess that Eakins was handed in 2013 in Edmonton. At the very least, Eakins has a solid No. 1 center (Ryan Getzlaf), other productive veterans (Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, Adam Henrique), some intriguing prospects, and the best goaltender in the NHL.

In his final game behind Edmonton’s bench on Dec. 14, 2014 — a 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers — Eakins’ lineup had a combined total of 221 playoff games under its belt. Veteran Andrew Ference, who’d never play a full season in the NHL again after 2014-15, contributed 120 of those playoff games. Edmonton’s core at the time — Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz, Nail Yakupov — didn’t contribute any to that total.

Getzlaf alone has played in 125 postseason games, and while there’s no guarantee that he’ll add any more to that total, it does guarantee Eakins is inheriting some players with a winning pedigree, and that can only help.

Eakins was set up for failure in Edmonton, and on that front he delivered. There was no culture change, no light at the end of the tunnel, no winning. It was the wrong team, the wrong time, and the wrong coach for the job. In December 2014, Eakins was fired after 113 games by then-Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, who astutely admitted that the roster he assembled wasn’t up to snuff.

Clearly, whatever innovations Eakins and his staff had in mind — something called “The Swarm” was a thing — fell through. Once the AHL’s hottest future NHL coaching candidate, Eakins was a laughingstock. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and a few more disappointing Oilers seasons, it’s evident Eakins was not solely to blame for Edmonton’s failures.

Todd Nelson, who served as the interim coach after Eakins’ firing, could not propel the Oilers to respectability during the second half of the 2014-15 season. He posted a 17-25-9 record.

Todd McLellan, who won almost twice as many games as he lost in seven seasons with San Jose, could not fix the Oilers. His lone bright spot came in 2016-17 when he led Edmonton to the second round of the playoffs, where the Oilers were eliminated by the Ducks. He finished with a 123-119-24 record in 3 1/2 seasons in Edmonton.

Ken Hitchcock, who has won a Stanley Cup and is likely heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, took over for McLellan last season and was seen as a last-ditch option to get the Oilers to play winning hockey, whatever that entails.

He couldn’t. Hitchcock, who had never left with a losing record in any of his four previous stops as an NHL coach, led Edmonton to a sparkling 26-28-8 record. Clearly, even the greats fall victim to the Oilers’ Sarlacc Pit.

Does the lack of success by Eakins’ successors suggest that he was blameless? Of course not. But the bet by Murray and the Ducks is that Eakins’ experience in Edmonton will be a benefit, not a curse.

There are plenty of examples of successful current NHL coaches who were failures at their first coaching stops. Mike Sullivan coached Boston in 2003-04 and 2005-06; the Bruins made the playoffs in Sullivan’s first year, and then finished last in their division his second year. Sullivan wasn’t retained the next year by Boston, so he spent the better part of the next decade as an NHL assistant before taking on the head coaching position for Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That job led to a promotion to the Penguins, and Sullivan guided an aging core to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

How about Boston’s current head coach, Bruce Cassidy? Cassidy was head coach in Washington for two years from 2002 to 2004, and like Sullivan had mild success in his first season. His second year was a failure, and he was fired 28 games into the 2003-04 season.

After a couple years coaching in the OHL, Cassidy spent eight years coaching Boston’s AHL farm club in Providence, either as an assistant or as head coach. He parlayed that into a gig with the Bruins in 2016-17, and Boston has made the playoffs each year since, nearly capturing the Stanley Cup in 2018-19.

There are 31 NHL head coaches. Of those 31, 20 have been fired from previous stops. For every Jon Cooper — someone who has only known success in their first chance behind an NHL bench — there’s 10 others, like Cassidy or Sullivan, who’ve tasted failure.

There’s no reason Eakins can’t be the next to show exponential improvement. In eight seasons as an AHL coach, Eakins’ teams have finished worse than .500 only once. He’s made the Calder Cup Playoffs in five of those eight seasons and won at least one playoff round each time. He’s coached in a Calder Cup Final with Toronto. He’s coached in a Conference Final with San Diego. In four years with the Gulls, Eakins has complied a 154-95-23 record.

Is Eakins the perfect hire? There’s no such thing. Is he a good or bad hire? That’s to be determined. But he is familiar with most of the Ducks players he’ll be coaching in 2019-20 and beyond, and he’s had success with many of them. The Ducks, despite what some oblivious national pundits may say, are going to be a young team for the foreseeable future, and it’s important to hire a coach with a history of connecting with players barely old enough to legally drink or rent a car.

Eakins has a track record of doing that, and that alone is worth the gamble.