February 25 2014 12:49PM
The Oilers have spent the past week having a mini-training camp getting ready for the final quarter of the season. I sat down with Dallas Eakins yesterday for a quick one-on-one to get his thoughts on his team, the powerplay, learning to win and what he learned about himself during the first 60 games.
Prior to the interview we chatted about the Olympics, biking and some other stuff, and I noticed he seemed much more relaxed than he was in October. We'll have more on that later.
Here is the interview with my thoughts in italics.
Gregor: What is the biggest difference you’ve seen from training camp number two compared to the camp at the start of the season?
Eakins: Well, I think that the biggest thing is that the guys are quicker to understand what we are trying to do system wise. We’ve modified a few things with our systems and it seems like they’ve been able to grasp it much quicker. Now, that being said, we’ll see how it translates into the games but I find that they’re picking things up quicker and it’s mostly because they understand my language, they understand the terms that we’re using. When a new coach comes in, he’s got certain ways that he explains things, he’s got different words than the previous coaches have and it takes them a while to pick it up, but so far, so good at the end of this second training camp.
**Outside of having less overall skill and size of other teams, the Oilers have had to spend too much time learning new systems in the season while other teams get to refine theirs. Not only have the Oilers made too many coaching changes, they haven't added any experience behind the bench the past few years.
Currently 15 NHL teams have as associate or assistant coach who used to be an NHL head coach. You need experience on the ice and behind the bench. I expect Eakins will make changes to his coaching staff this off-season, and when he does he needs to bring in at least one, maybe two experienced NHL coaches.**
Gregor: Did it make it easier because your team went in on a winning streak and the guys come back in a better frame of mind, more willing to listen?
Eakins: I think that the answer is yes and no. I don’t think that it ever hurts to be winning, but even if we had lost a couple, it’s so long ago. It seems like it’s been ages since we’ve played, but I think that the biggest thing is sort of over the last bunch of games, us being in the games, us being able to win a few has got some hope. The guys are able to maybe see the light flickering at the end of the tunnel and that’s big. You want to know that you’re going to be in the games, and we weren’t in the games early. But as of late, we’re there. We’re knocking on the door to either be close, tie the game up or we’re in the lead. And that’s where you need to be in hockey games to win.
Gregor: This team hasn’t had a lot of continuity behind the bench these past six years. Next season would be only the second time in six years the team had the same head coach. Can you send the message to your players that these 22 games, even though they don’t help us in the standings this year, they really do matter for next year?
Eakins: Yeah and it’s already been set. Coming out of the break we firmly sent the message that what we’re doing during this time of practice and through the games is how we’re going to play the game next year. I don’t want to be coming into training camp next year, teaching a whole bunch of systems. We should have a good number of these guys back next year and we should be able to roll right into it and get going. I thought that was what cost us this year. I thought that a couple of new system things weren’t picked up very well and we had to change out of it, we didn’t have success with it. That shouldn’t be a factor next year, but these games are big for the individuals and for the group as well because we want to have success. But the biggest thing for me through to the end of the season is to continue to hammer home our habits and our system play.
**Nugent-Hopkins has had a new head coach every season. That is ridiculous. It is time the young core guys get comfortable in a system, so they can just react on the ice, because they know what to do, rather than have to think where they need to go.**
Gregor: Andrew Ference talked about how it’s easy if you’re a young guy going into a winning organization and see what all of the vets are doing and how they have success. That hasn’t happened here. MacTavish has added a few veteran guys in Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Ference, guys who know how to compete hard every night. Have you seen a difference in your young skilled players in their overall, night-to-night competitive level?
Eakins: Yeah, yeah. As of late, yes. And you’re right, most teams the way that they have been built is young players come in, but the veteran guys run everything and those good teams like the Boston Bruins and others, their veterans have unbelievable habits, unbelievable work habits, they have an attention to detail and a young player comes in, if they have any type of character at all they’re like ‘OK this is how it’s done’ and they fall in and the continuity keeps going.
Here in Edmonton a lot of the leadership had been put
on the younger players and I’m not quite sure that they were ready for it. So
by bringing in the Ferences and the Gordons and now Hendricks, Mark Fraser to a
certain degree, we’ve got a number of guys that have great habits, great work
ethic, they’ve got great attention to detail that we’re looking for and as we
add more players of that ilk I think you’ll see this team start to transform.
But I do see our younger guys, the guys that don’t have a lot of experience in
this league or who are young in age, growing and they’re slowly turning into
**Some might be wondering how the kids can learn from Fraser. I'm with you, it won't happen in a game, but during practice Fraser has been working over the kids. That will help them. They need to know how to handle big, heavy D-men. He practices very hard and doesn't go easy on the skilled players. That will help them. He might stick as a #7 next year, his footspeed is a major issue, but his competitiveness in practice will benefit the young forwards.***
Gregor: You’ve had 60 games to get an understanding of your players and find out what makes each individual guy tick. What have you learned about Taylor Hall, for instance, during those games that now that you might coach him differently coming out of this break than you did in game one?
Eakins: Hey listen, I know that the guys who have been here all year, it’s fair to say that I know them inside out. And it takes time; you don’t get that in two weeks or even two months. Sometimes it takes a whole year to figure it out.
I’m not going to go too deep in on this but the one thing that I truly know about Taylor Hall is that he wants to be the best player on the ice. And he’s hard on himself and he expects to be the best player on the ice. And that’s an encouraging thing for a coach and it should be an encouraging thing for our team. And we need to continue to teach him and show him how to play the game so he can be the best left winger on the ice each night.
Gregor: At this point right now is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the most committed of your young skilled guys to that two way game?You spoke earlier today about Jonathan Toews two-way game, is Nugent-Hopkins getting enough credit publicly for his two-way game?
Eakins: He’s made some massive strides boy. He’s taken the next step; we’re using him on the penalty kill a lot now. He’s getting stronger, he’s been able to handle some more minutes so I think that he’s quietly going about his business and that’s how I want it to go. I want it to go quietly. I don’t want to be comparing Nuge to other players but I spoke about Toews today and his role on that Canadian team and I think the world of that player.
I think Nuge is growing, he’s growing into his own skin, I think that he’s understanding his role on this team and how important he is to our team. And the biggest thing that I’ve been trying to push Nuge in is to push back a little bit more. I don’t think that it is in his nature; he’s a very respectful kid. I think he’s been very respectful of the other players in the league and we’re quietly pushing him to be a little bit less respectful of the players on the other teams.
***Nugent-Hopkins is very good down low. He is the most committed of the young guys to being a great two-way player, and he needs to be because he plays centre. The other thing I like about his game is that he is sneaky dirty. Watch how often he gives guys a slippery stick to the hands or back of the legs.**
Gregor: That seems to be something that’s encompassing of a lot of your younger guys; there’s not a real big bite in any of their games. Taylor Hall shows it at times when he gets mad. He admitted that he doesn’t like to get involved in scrums because he thinks that it gets him off of his game.
As a coach and a guy who had to play that kind of way to stay in the league, can you get guys to be less respectful on a continual basis and is that difficult to bring out in players?
Eakins: Well I think that it’s extremely
hard. I’m a firm believer in either you have some nastiness in you or you
don’t. And it’s OK if you don’t. But to go ask a player to go play that type of
game and he doesn’t have that gene inside of him, is the exact same thing as
asking a very limited skilled guy to go and score 30 goals. That’s not going to
happen. So the biggest thing that we do ask our guys is if one guy is in there,
we all have to be in there. We never want anyone isolated in a scrum, even if
it’s not in your nature or maybe not your job to do that, you have to support
your teammates and if you’re on the outside that is a huge, huge red flag for
me and for that player’s teammates.
The one thing that we’ve seen here at the start of the year, maybe through the first 15 or 20 games, we did have guys on the outside of scrums. ‘Hey I don’t do that’ and we weren’t supporting each other, but now when something is happening on the ice, we do have everyone in there pushing and pulling together. And that’s an important thing on a team.
Gregor: There’s been a lot of focus on your power play. I did an extensive study and found out that most of the top-ten teams last year weren’t there this year. Your team is one of them. You’ve got a lot of passers, not necessarily a lot of guys who really want to shoot; [Nail] Yakupov is maybe the best shooter, but even he doesn’t shoot that much. Have you talked to guys to try to get them to be more of a shooter? How do you go about that and does it change in who you’re going to use in your power play format the remainder of the season?
Eakins: Yeah, you know what we were talking about just before I came in here and you’re right. There are a number of things that I agree with you on. Number one is special teams from one year to another year, they have nothing to do with anything. Not only does your personnel change, but the personnel that you’re playing against changes. So it’s very hard to compare one year to another.
The second thing is that you’re right, the guys that we have on our power play, if you go through the ten players that we use consistently, almost all of them are pass first guys. And yes, we encourage them, we plead, we yell, we scream, we’re beating them over the head to shoot more but it doesn’t come naturally to them. And when they have to start thinking about it, that’s that extra second that the play dies. So what we’re trying to do here, is we are committed to being in a shooting power play and that is what we are going to build for next year especially when we are looking at personnel.
We want to stick with the 1-3-1 setup that I think is the most dangerous in the league. It’s almost impossible to defend, we find it extremely hard to defend on our penalty kill, so we want to stick with that and for that to work we need guys to put the puck to the net.
The thing I alluded to, we were just speaking about was I just asked my staff ‘are we trying to fit square pegs into round holes with this, should we just go back to something where we’re going to try to pass the puck in the net?’ And I don’t think that we can do it. I think we have to be committed to what works, the players have to be committed to what is working around the league and that’s shooting the puck.
The one thing that did happen over the last couple of games is we switched guys around again, still in that same 1-3-1, but we ended up getting more pucks to the net. So we’re going to stick with it. Listen, it’s something that we spend a lot of time thinking about, a lot of time practicing, a lot of time talking about. It’s not something that we’ve just swept under the carpet and is not a concern to us.
***They need a D-man with a heavy shot from the point. J.Schultz is good at moving the puck, but he is more of a passer. In the off-season I expect the Oilers to look for a top-pair D-man, or a top-three at least and it will be a guy who is a shooter. The biggest change on the Oilers PP this year is how teams defend them. They have taken away the down low pass and because they don't have to worry about a shooter up high. And a shooter isn't just someone who can one-time the puck. They need a pure D-man shooter, then when teams respect him it will free up Yakupov for a one-timer, or for the cross-crease pass down low.***
Gregor: What’s the one thing that you’ve learned the most through the first 60 games as a coach?
Eakins: Just to breathe. I think early on in the season my intensity got up very, very high. I don’t think that it’s something that is ever going to be taken out of me, but I do have a fair amount of fire from time to time and I think with this group maybe the expectations got a little bit ahead of themselves and that’s from me.
I found myself very angry early in the season where now I firmly understand where our needs are, where we need to get better, what we need to do with certain guys moving forward and I’m a little bit more at ease with where we are at as a team. I feel like we’ve got the process going, the playing going where we can really build a good program moving forward.
**It was nice to hear Eakins admit that the expectations were unrealistic at the start of the season. Every one will make mistakes, the key is what you learn from them and how you change it moving forward. Even in our interview I noticed he was much calmer and not on edge like he was early in the year. It was clear he had high expectations at the start of the year, which is good, but they need to be realistic. I think he knows where the weaknesses of this team are now, and unfortunately there are many of them, so it will still take awhile before this team is a top contender.**
- I don't see major changes to the core of this team over the summer, and that is why I think these final 22 games are crucial. They need to have a clear understanding of the system, be comfortable with it, and execute it. That will allow Eakins to see what small tweaks he can bring to camp next season, and it will allow the players to be more comfortable. Learning a system, especially when your core is young and inexperienced, takes more than a few months. The Oilers skilled forwards never had to be defensively sound in junior, and having a new coach every year in the NHL hasn't helped their learning process. Continuity is key, because it will allow them to react and not think.
- I mentioned Pittsburgh as a possible destination for Hemsky, and people wondered about Simon Despres as a possible return. The scouting report I got from a source in Pittsburgh is that he lacks consistency and drive. In my opinion, The Oilers don't need another D-man with those attributes.
- I do agree with the line of thinking on Despres. He is an older prospect, 22, and I'd rather see the Oilers get a prospect who is 20-22 than another draft pick.
- The Oilers have 22 games left and they only play back-to-back twice, so I'd give Ben Scrivens 14 or 15 starts. Fifteen starts would pro-rate to 55 starts in a full season. Let's see how he handles a starter's workload.
- If you are looking to watch some competitive playoff hockey I recommend checking out the Midget AAA semi finals. Leduc/St.Albert and CAC/Lloydminster. They start on Wednesday and the full schedule is here. Also, the Golden Bears are at home at Clare Drake arena on Friday and Saturday for semi-final action vs. UBC.
- As of today there have been no serious discussions on a contract extension for Hemsky. Things can change in a week, but I just don't see why Hemsky would pass up the opportunity to test the free agent waters. It would likely be his final opportunity to cash in on the open market.
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