Dallas Eakins played pro hockey for 15 years. He was an elite journeyman defenceman. He played for 18 different organizations in the AHL, IHL and NHL. He played 273 in the IHL, 609 in the AHL and 120 in the Show. He also spent another 220 watching from NHL pressboxes.
He understood his role and knew his limitations as a player, but he was lucky enough to play for and watch some of the best coaches: Roger Neilson, Mike Keenan, Lindy Ruff, Randy Carlyle, Perry Pearn, Pat Quinn and others, and Eakins was smart enough to monitored what worked for them as coaches.
Eakins has the Marlies leading the North Division and tied for 2nd in the Western conference with 62 points. He knows how to get the most of his players, and when you read his philosophies on coaching, it makes me believe he won’t be in the AHL very long.
If the Leafs miss the playoffs, should the keep Ron Wilson, despite giving him an extension over Christmas? If they keep Wilson, I think it is very possible they will lose Eakins. Many have debated whether Keith Aulie or Nazim Kadri are the Leaf’s best prospects, but Eakins might be the most important prospect in their system.
I caught up with Eakins and got his thoughts on the Marlies, coaching philosophies and learned that Roger Neilson had the biggest influence on his coaching career.
JG: You played in Toronto, you’ve been around the pressure. How is it as a coach in a market where you see a fan base that loves the pro team, the Leafs, but doesn’t pay as much attention to the Marlies. Is that kind of a mental thing you have to work over with your young guys to have them contain a positive frame of mind wondering, how come we don’t have 10 or 12,000 fans every night?
DE: I think the players maybe see it, but I think they fully understand it. They understand that number one; first and foremost, this is a Leaf town. And if they need to play in front of 20,000 people every night, then they need to take a little bit more serious role in their development, get better, so they can get out of the league that I’m coaching in right now.
I don’t necessarily buy into the "The people don’t care about the Marlies." I think we’ve got great interest that hasn’t translated, maybe, into people in the seats, but everybody is watching and keeping track, especially of our young players’ progress. When there’s an injury or somebody not playing up top, the conversation quickly goes to the Marlies, and who is going to be next. I like flying under the radar here, and I also love the City’s passion for the game. I love the pressure that comes with coaching the Leafs. I was an assistant coach there; and I absolutely enjoyed every day of going in, even when things were tough. But, hey, the city cares. They’re passionate about the game, and they want to win.
JG: A lot of people tell me, you don’t know how to really be a head coach when you’re a not one. Whether it’s the Western League, the American League, or what have you. Was that why you went to the Marlies, because you wanted to show people you could run everything and be an NHL head coach someday?
DE: Well, I think deep down inside you don’t say what you think you’re best at. I worked for Paul Maurice when I was with the Leafs; and he taught me so, so much. You know, if you would have asked me before, I would have told you right away: Hey, I could coach an American League Team right now. I don’t need any experience. I’ve played long enough. I understand what it takes. And I was totally wrong. Looking back at being an assistant coach, I think I did a real good job for Paul; but now being a head coach, I firmly know that I’m a much better head coach than I ever was an assistant. I think it’s my personality. I think it’s one of these things where I want things done my way, and that’s it. So I think the assistant coaching helped me, but deep down inside, I think I knew I was a head guy.
JG: You mentioned that you felt you could go down and be an American League head coach tomorrow, because of your experience playing in both leagues for a long, long time. What was the biggest learning curve when you actually took over the Marlies?
DE: Well, I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to go right in as a head guy. I was an assistant with the Marlies; I was two years an assistant with the Leafs and one year I was the director of player development. So when I got a shot at the head job, I firmly knew what it was going to take. I think what caught me off guard when I was an assistant coach — even with just with the Marlies, with Paul Maurice before we moved up to the big club — was the amount of work going on behind the scenes on how long it takes to get your video meeting ready; how long it takes to get the players’ shifts together; how long it takes to get a good practice plan together; and this goes on every day.
The best job in pro hockey is to be a player. You show up and everything is done for you. All you have to do is pay attention and work hard. The coaches are there at six in the morning, and they’re the last guys to leave late in the day. So there’s a real time commitment.
And now, being a head guy, I think the most important thing that I found is I’ve got to get to know every one of these players individually. I firmly believe that I do not coach a team. I coach 23 individuals. They’re all different. They all need to be handled differently when it comes to their personal goals and motivation, and then I treat them all the same when it comes to their discipline and their work ethic.
JG: You have two very good young players that have been up and down: Keith Aulie and Nazem Kadri. The goal at the American league, of course, is to win, but it’s also to develop players. When you have guys who are that close ‑‑ they’re in the same city ‑‑ do you think that makes the job a little bit easier when a player gets a taste of it and comes back hungrier, or do they come back and there’s that disappointment stage? How do you approach that, especially somebody who went through that themselves many years ago?
DE: It’s tough on the players to be up and down like that, and when they’re right there knocking on the door. Their goal has always been to play in the NHL, then they get a taste, and maybe they’re sent back. There’s the chasing of the dream, and then the next factor comes in is the money part. The money part, there’s a huge difference in what they’re paid. And the thing we run into here in Toronto ‑‑ and it’s probably the only downfall there is of having a team in the same market — is that there’s a little bit of embarrassment factor, and it’s something I’ve got to talk to our players about all the time because I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or sheepish because they’ve been sent down. It is part of their development process to become a full‑time guy, and you’re going to have to earn your stripes in the American League.
What happens here in Toronto, any time they walk outside or they walk into a restaurant, somebody’s going to ask them, “Hey, what’s going on? Why are you down?” And there’s not always a clear answer to that.
So the thing I do like about it is I think it puts a little bit of heat on the guys. I think they’re able to push a little harder. They become a little bit more committed because they don’t want to face the questions. They don’t want to walk down the street going, Ah, I just got sent down. They want to walk down the street as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and I think we manage that very well here.
JG: I was looking at all the coaches you played for, and a lot of them were some of best coaches in the history of the game: Roger Neilson, Mike Keenan, Pat Quinn, Lindy Ruff was an assistant and Neilson was an assistant under Mike Keenan. When you look at all the different personalities, Keenan was a hard ass, demanded lots; Quinn could be a hard guy but was very personal; Roger Neilson was the ultimate X and O guy. Did you pay attention to the ins and outs of coaching at that point, or were you like most players and maybe not thinking about coaching?
DE: Well, what’s interesting is you bring up Roger Neilson’s name, and Roger was like a second father to me. I grew up with Roger Neilson. I spent a lot of time with him. We spent almost all of our summers together. He was not only a great friend, somebody I looked up to, and like I said, a second father. I learned a ton off of Roger. All the coaches I played for, I was always paying attention to what was going on. Whether it was, Iron Mike or Pat Quinn, it didn’t matter who it is; I was watching what they were doing and when they played guys in different situations.
My days in the NHL, I think I was on the roster for 330, 340 games as an NHL player where I only played like 120, 125 games. I was scratched a lot. I was a journeyman guy. I always understood why I was out, and I kind of looked at it through the coach’s eyes and what he was thinking, and I understood it. I think that helped me pay attention to what was going on. Even back then, I was writing down drills. I was paying attention on how they were handling player system stuff. I knew that someday I was going to use this to my advantage because I knew down the road that I thought I could be a good coach.
So I think I take a little bit from all of them. I think I’m probably a pretty good mix of a Roger Neilson who deeply cares about his players to a Mike Keenan who can be very hard on his guys. And I think I’m kind of right in the middle. My guys know that I’m 100 percent behind them. I encourage them. They know I want them to make it so badly, yet at the same time, they know not to cross the line with me. I demand a lot out of these young men because I know what the reward is at the end for them.
JG: During all those conversations, whether it was during the hockey season or the summer, with Roger Neilson, what was the best advice or the one thing that stood out for you that helped you become a successful coach?
DE: Well, you’re going to think this is funny. I learned so much from Rog. But the most crucial thing he taught me was how it important it was to care about your players. He showed me what kind of work ethic it took to be a coach. He got to know all of his players individually, about their families, their kids, whatever it was. And I’ve tried to do that. But for me, the most uncomfortable thing in the world ‑‑ it’s because I sat on the other side of the desk ‑‑ is when I’ve got to send a guy down or tell a guy that, “Listen, we’re sending you down to the East Coast League.” Or it’s through training camp, “we’re not going to give you a contract; we’re cutting you.” It’s a horrible, horrible thing to do, but in the end it has to be done.
The one thing Rog always told me is that you don’t need to give excuses. You need to get the player in your office, give them the news, and get them out of there as quick as possible. If you want to do some explaining or talk to them, do it a week later whether he’s at home or maybe he’s down with the East Coast League team, whatever it is, but don’t get into a long conversation when you’re sending a guy down. I know it’s probably not what you’re looking for on coaching advice ‑‑
But every time I have to do this, I think of Rog. It’s like, okay, I’m bringing this guy in. I’m giving him the news, and I’m getting him out the door as fast as possible because the kids are usually devastated. They’re upset, and when you start getting into excuses I’m not even sure they’re hearing them. So I try to get them out the door as fast as possible, and then I try to check in with them a week or two later to make sure that they’re doing all right. Then you can have a little bit better conversation with them on what needs to be done, or which way they need to go in their lives now.
JG: What would be your piece of advice to amateur coaches — whether they’re coaching Triple A, whether they’re coaching junior, whether they’re coaching pee wee, or even house league and atom — what’s the one thing you have to do to be a successful coach?
DE: Well, actually, I’ve got a few. I’m not just going to give you one. I think for young coaches, number one, get to know your players and get to know them individually. You’ve got to find out what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them mad. I think it’s so important on so many different levels. You can’t treat every one of your players the same. It’s impossible, and it’s a real dangerous road to go down.
Number two; skill up your players. Skill them. Don’t get caught trying to teach them a trap or something like that in practice. You’ve got to designate a lot of your practice time to skill. Whether that’s skating, passing, handling the puck, these players need to have pucks on their sticks all the time. If you do want to run system stuff, the game is going where, hey, it’s pressure; it’s attack. I think teams are really falling away from the trap style of game, and you need to go after teams. For me, pressure is best.
JG: What would be the best puck possession drill that you would implement at a young level?
DE: Well, it’s hard to give it to you in an interview, but I just think in any drill where you’ve got many players going at once where there’s multiple passes, where there has to be communication and timing, you’re doing a pretty good job. I even watch practices in our league and I’ll see two guys skating down the ice; One guy going one way and the other guy going the other way for a shot on net. I see 20 other players standing there and it sickens me. You have to have multiple players moving. You can still get your shooting drills in with multiple guys moving and passing the puck. If you’ve got your whole team down at one end doing a shooting drill, or you’ve got two guys going in a shooting drill, you’ve got a big problem in my books.