American Hockey League

Ducks’ rebuild could start with Eakins

SAN DIEGO — The game was tight, close and getting closer. His team was locked in a tense battle with a bitter division rival, the play rough and growing rougher by the minute, and San Diego Gulls coach Dallas Eakins was in no mood for what happened next.

A player from the Bakersfield Condors began yapping at Eakins as the second period wound to a close. Eakins and his coaching staff walked across the ice when the period ended and toward their dressing room, their paths diverging slightly from the Condors and their coaches.

Suddenly, Eakins and Bakersfield coach Jay Woodcroft began screaming at each other. Eakins took a few steps toward Woodcroft, then halted as players and coaches converged to ensure nothing physical happened. Eakins then motioned for Woodcroft to meet him beneath the stands, out of sight.

Nothing came of it, although Eakins and Woodcroft had another animated conversation as they returned to their benches before the third period began in what would become a 3-2 loss for the Gulls to the Condors. Eakins would later dismiss it as “just their coach trying to stick up for his player.”

Eakins had returned to the calm, cool, collected person he was hours earlier, when he spoke at length about his coaching philosophy, about mentoring and pushing and prodding a new generation of prospects and preparing them for the day they could eventually become members of the NHL’s Ducks.

He did not wish to speak directly about the distinct possibility that he could become the Ducks’ next coach, after General Manager Bob Murray’s short and bittersweet tenure behind their bench concludes with Friday’s season finale against the Kings at Honda Center.

Hiring his replacement will be among the many priorities on Murray’s offseason to-do list, after the Ducks lost 19 of 21 games, spiraling out of playoff contention and toward the bottom of the NHL’s overall standings, and Murray fired Randy Carlyle.

Eakins, 52, is believed to be the leading candidate, although it’s expected that Murray will interview several others in an attempt to find the coach who will lead the Ducks’ remodeling effort after they missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

Over his four-season tenure with the Gulls, Eakins has proved to be analytical without lapsing into coach-speak, prepared without being overwrought, demanding without being overbearing and, above all, a teacher who’s achieved excellent results from his students.

Playing in the AHL is a rite of passage for most NHL players. San Diego has been an incubator for the Ducks’ top prospects, with Eakins preparing a steady stream of talented young players who have made the journey north on I-5 to the Ducks and to the NHL.

“I think you’ve got to be quick on your feet,” Eakins said, explaining his role as a minor league coach. “You’ve always got to be searching, especially how you’re going to coach those top-end guys. It’s always evolving because each one of those guys, they’re different people.

“They’re all raised differently. Some have had no brothers and sisters. Some have had many. You’ve really got to go in deep to maximize who they can be. I can go in to (Gulls right wing) Corey Tropp and I could literally kick him in the (rear) every day and he will respond every day.

“We’ve got other guys if I did that they might respond a few times, but I would eventually lose them. You can’t do it. If I went in and gave Corey Tropp a hug every day, I wouldn’t get much. It’s amazing the different personalities, where they’re at age-wise.”

Creating a culture

Eakins’ ability to connect with his players has served him well in San Diego, according to those who have played for him and coached with him. He encourages the players to surf the waves off the coast or hit the links if they like. He discourages them from playing video games or sleeping all day.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect down there,” said Ducks right wing Troy Terry, who played 41 games with the Gulls and 32 with the Ducks before a broken leg ended his season last week. “It’s a credit to the guys and it’s a big credit to Dallas.

“It just felt like such a close team and the culture is team-first. And I think when you have a culture like that, everyone does better individually. No one is down there playing for themselves. In the back of their minds, everyone is trying to move on. That’s what that level is for, but it’s such a close group that it feels like a family culture down there. It’s a fun team to be a part of.”

Said Max Jones, a left wing who played 40 games in San Diego and 29 with the Ducks: “He focuses on relationships and that makes us want to play for him. It makes us want to work hard for him and want to buy into his systems. Everyone I talk to about him, they love him. As a coach, as a person, he’s just great. He’s a great person. That’s something you cherish about him.”

When the Gulls gave up three first-period goals in that March 29 game against Bakersfield, Eakins replaced goaltender Kevin Boyle with backup Jeff Glass to start the second period. The Gulls responded and rallied. They didn’t need a motivational speech. Eakins said nothing.

“He didn’t come into the dressing room between periods and I thought that was great of him,” Gulls center Sam Carrick said. “He prepares us for the game. He gets us ready with his pregame speeches and his videos. Not much more needed to be said. We knew what we needed to do.

“It was just a matter of us doing it as a team.”

Eakins has had an influence on his peers, too.

“He’s very good at always bringing the very best out of people,” said Ducks assistant coach Marty Wilford, who was on Eakins’ staff for three seasons in San Diego. “I can say that for myself. He brought the best out of me. I wouldn’t be here if it was not for Dallas Eakins.

“He always pushes you to be better, but gives you space and opportunity to do your thing.”

Facing challenges

The Washington Capitals picked Eakins in the 10th round of the 1985 draft. He played 120 games in the NHL as a defenseman with the original Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Calgary Flames.

He never scored a goal, but had nine assists.

Four seasons as coach of the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ AHL team, prepared Eakins for the NHL, but not for what awaited him with the Edmonton Oilers, a franchise that’s been searching without success for the magic it captured in the Wayne Gretzky era in the 1980s.

Edmonton won 36 of 113 games in Eakins’ two seasons. He was criticized for many reasons, not least of which was a defensive scheme known as “the swarm,” which turned out to be a disjointed coverage plan that produced a steady string of defeats.

Eakins landed on his feet in San Diego, after the Ducks shifted their AHL team from Norfolk, Virginia, before the 2015-16 season. He’s resurrected his coaching career with the Gulls and is now on the cusp of a second NHL coaching job, a possible position with the rebuilding Ducks.

The challenges will be the same, only different. He’ll be coaching established players and also prospects, but the emphasis will be on winning games rather than developing players, although that will a large part of his job description, too.

“My 10-year-old daughter decided she wanted to start swimming in races,” Eakins said in addressing a question about his coaching philosophy. “She’s done very, very well at it. We’re never concerned with where she places. All I keep saying is, ‘Each time you go out, can you get a personal best? Can you do that?’ It’s kind of the way you approach those high-end guys at this level and the next.

“Is there just that tiny bit more? In this league, two extra goals, whether they’re scored or whether they’re denied, go a long way in the standings sometimes. It might be that extra point in the standings. It goes back to our mantra, to expect your best. I don’t want to expect the best out of you. I can’t even do that unless you expect the absolute best out of yourself.”

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