Finally! Eakins gets to pick his staff

Jason Gregor
June 12 2014 10:07AM

DallasInCharge

Despite what the Oilers said publicly, I never believed that Dallas Eakins had the freedom to pick his entire coaching staff last year. I also understand that what teams say to the media isn't always the complete truth. I never expected him to say it wasn't his choice, but a year later it is clear that Eakins has the autonomy to pick his staff.

Craig Ramsay is in, Kelly Buchberger has been reassigned within the organization. Steve Smith is contemplating a different role on the coaching staff, while Freddy Chabot's contract expires this month. Many teams are making changes with their goaltending coaches, so we could see a bit of a rotation amongst guys like Chabot.

I believe every head coach should have the authority to select his assistants, and the addition of Ramsay has improved the experience on the staff. It will likely make them more cohesive. 

I don't expect Ramsay to be a miracle worker. Eakins admitted at the end of the season that he underestimated how much work was required to make this team a contender. The Oilers still have a lot of work to do, but Ramsay will help the process.

The Oilers still need more experience, more skilled size, more grit, more consistency and more players who are willing to play as hard without the puck as they do with it. Craig MacTavish will need to supply Eakins with better players, but Eakins and his staff will need to nurture and develop the young players better as well.

I spoke with Eakins about Ramsay and why he was the right man for the Oilers. (My thoughts are in italics).

Gregor: How you were able to land such an experienced coach?

Eakins: Well the story goes like this, it was the end of the season, I echoed what Craig MacTavish said, I thought that our coaching staff had gelled together. I thought that we were working well together, the message was being delivered to the players and we were in a good place in that regard. But finishing in the place that we did and with the season that we had, I still thought that it was extremely important to get the stink off of us a little bit, reflect, and then start really taking stock of things.

And as I started to go through it, I thought that we were missing something on our staff. We started to explore adding a staff member and as we went through this, it disrupted everything. And the way that it disrupted was that no matter what box you were trying to checkoff on a coaching resume, Craig Ramsey could check off every one of them. If you want experience, got it. If you want someone to run a power play, got it. Run a penalty kill, got that, run a defence, forwards, he’s done everything. He’s been a head coach, an associate coach, an assistant coach. This guy has a rock star resume.

The big thing for me is that he’s had a great success as a teacher. He has an excellent rapport with the players, great one-on-one ability. But if you’re going to hire someone like Craig Ramsey, you’re going to have to clear a spot on the bench for him because they’re not going to go upstairs and coach from there and that’s where we had to make some real tough decisions, and hard decisions but ones that are made for the good of the organization.

My job here is to put everything in place so that we can make strides forward and win hockey games. It was a hard decision but I’m extremely excited that we were the team that was able to get Craig Ramsay.

***I don't doubt it is hard to let go of your assistant coaches. The head coach always feels more responsible for losses, and while I think it was obvious they needed to change their coaching staff, I genuinely believe it was difficult for Eakins to let them go.***

Gregor: What will he bring specifically? What will his specific responsibilities be?

Eakins: Well his role is going to be basically the same as he was doing in Boston. I thought he’s left a great stamp on the Boston Bruins defencemen. He’ll be in charge of our defence; he’ll be running the defence during the games. He will also be the voice and the deliverer of the message most of the time to our power play. He’s had some success in that regard in the past as well.

So those will be his two main roles, but that doesn’t discount the time that he’ll spend with our forwards and that’s how it works with the staff. It’s not just ‘hey, you do the defence’ and ‘you do the power play’, everybody has a voice on a staff.

I think it’s extremely important to debate and exchange ideas in all regards. And so Craig will be in charge of the defence, he’ll be delivering the message on the power play, it’s just not Craig that’s responsible for the power play, it’s me, it’s Steve [Smith] and it’s myself, it’s Keith [Acton]and it’s the players who are on the ice trying to execute it as well.

***Ramsay will help the PP, but they need to find someone who can, and will, shoot the puck from the point. The Oilers have the ability to score the pretty goals, but they need to score the simple, non-flashy powerplay goals as well.***

Gregor: You mentioned that while going through the process of analyzing the season you realized something was missing on your staff. What was missing?

Eakins: Well, I thought… it started off with somebody with some offensive flair and somebody that had had some success with the power play. Then the next step was some offensive flair who really understood an aggressive offensive game and that’s where we want to get to as a group. That’s where it started. And then it just turned into more, because as we looked at specific candidates, there were some guys that could check off those things, but when you looked at Craig, he could check off a whole bunch more. It was like a one stop shop. So we kept going back to Craig and I really pinpointed him and had a lot of talks with Craig to sway him in our direction. He was very receptive and we’re excited to have him on board.

***Eakins recognized a weakness and he addressed it. No NHL head coach is great in every aspect. You need different viewpoints, personalities and levels of experience on your staff. Recognizing our own weaknesses is difficult enough, but if you can find them, and then have the courage to hire someone with the skillsets to improve them, you likely will have more success. Eakins wants his team to be more aggressive offensively, but he realized he needed someone with experience to help him achieve that. Good on him.**

POWERPLAY SUCCESS

powerplay

Gregor: Ramsay has had success on the power play What different view point do you think he will bring that will work well with the players you have?

Eakins: Well I’m hopeful that with the way that he coaches, this isn’t a coach that’s going to coach in a group. Let’s take the powerplay for instance, you’ve got the one unit, you bring the five in, ‘this is what we’re looking to do,’ but away from that, there’s a lot of individual meetings happening on the side. And explaining why and that’s a question that you get a lot of times from players.

It used to be, ‘here’s what we’re doing’ and the player put his head down and he did it. And now they’re a lot of, ‘what’s the thought process,’ ‘why are we doing that’ from the players and Craig has a great way of delivering that message. It’s through one on one communication and you guys will see how he’s able to deliver it.

Craig is not a yeller and he’s not a screamer, he’s a guy that’s able to persuade people into doing what’s right on the ice in a very positive and educational way.

Gregor: We know that Craig is going to run the defence and the power play so where does that leave Steve Smith?

Eakins: Well Steve Smith is an excellent coach and a guy that I really thought was coming into his own last year. We’re in discussions with Steve right now in accepting a new role on our staff. Um…It will be a very different role than he’s used to and it’s going to take sometime for him to consider that. So we’re talking with Steve about that now and we’ll have to give him some time to process it. This isn’t a, ‘hey this is what we see you doing. Are you in or are you out?’ I think everyone deserves the right to take some time to think about it. We’ll just have to monitor the situation and see which way it goes.

***Smith's contract expires at the end of this month and I don't see him returning. I could be wrong, but it is a pretty big step back to go from running the defence for the past few years, to being the 4th guy on the staff.**

Gregor: Will you have four coaches on the bench next year on a regular basis or will the fourth guy be upstairs as the eye in the sky?

Eakins: Yeah. I’ve made it clear that I’m going back to just three guys on the bench. I wanted to try four last year. As the year went on, I felt a little bit restricted back there with the ability just to get up and down the bench; there’s not a lot of room back there.

Like I said before, once you get away from it, and you get out of town you are able to reflect and really look back at certain things and that was one of the things that I’m firm on now.

For me, it’s not productive to have four on the bench. I’m a three coach guy on the bench. That doesn’t discount that fourth guy. That fourth guy is extremely important, especially during the game, being able to see it from above. He’s extremely important with his views in the dressing room and he’s able to coach during practice and coach these guys individually. So it doesn’t discount the guy upstairs and all you have to do is look around the league and look at the people who are upstairs now. Larry Robinson is going upstairs, Doug Jarvis in Boston is going up, and both are extremely important pieces to their puzzle. But for me, we’re back to a three coach routine.

***No way Eakins would have been sprayed by water if there was only three coaches on the bench last year! But seriously, it makes sense to only have three on the bench. The 4th coach does get a different perspective from upstairs, and I think at times they can see things that you won't see from ice level.***

SELF EVALUATION

improvement

Gregor: When you look back, what do you feel you did well last year and what are the areas that you as a coach need to improve on this season?

Eakins: Well I think, and this was a hard part of the job. I think we did a lot of heavy lifting last year on the accountability side, on what is going to be required to be an Edmonton Oiler. And what I mean by that is how you’re going to carry yourself, how you’re going to be a professional, and that there’s going to be a certain way that we do things and it’s not going to be hey just show up and just do what you want.

We wanted to establish the way that we’re going to carry ourselves as an Edmonton Oiler. I think that has firmly been established. I believe that our players are all in on that degree and I know that our guys are looking forward to the next season.

I just had lunch with -- I don’t know if it was lunch, it was kind of a mid-morning breakfast -- with Taylor Hall, last week, and I’ve spoken to about half of our roster over the last two weeks, checking in on them, and they’re excited to take a step forward.

Things I can improve, I think that you can constantly improve all of the time. I don’t care who you are and what line of work you’re in, you should be trying to improve all of the time. I think for me a big part of my improvement is going to come from adding Craig, his experience being a head coach.

He’s already given me a couple of things that I am not going to share with you, but that he’s said, ‘Listen, here are some things that you did. You don’t need to do that and here’s how I think that you should have handled it.’ And it comes across in a very good way. He’s not trying to be a puppeteer, but he’s a guy that I regard as a dear friend and somebody I’m going to listen to and to consider all of the time.

***We all need mentors in our line of work. Most of the best advice I've received was from people in my industry who had more experience. Eakins made some mistakes last year, and it is great that he is receptive to change. Eakins wants to improve as a coach, and it is great that Ramsay is willing to share his opinions with Eakins. I'm sure how he reacted to the Hall water bottle incident was one of the topics they discussed. Eakins is a driven SOB and he desperately wants to win and improve as a coach, and having Ramsay around should only make him a better head coach.**

Gregor: Will waiting on the decision from Steve Smith be the only other change, or will there be other changes on your coaching staff?

Eakins: Well no, hey, listen, Keith Acton is an amazing coach. And one of the reasons that I hired him was when you look at a player like Alex Steen, I saw the work that Keith Acton put in, and a lot of time one on one with Alex, and Keith is going to rub off on our players and he’s already doing that. We’ve got Craig Ramsay in place. We’ll wait on Steve Smith’s decision and we’ll go from there but right now that’s where we’re at.

Gregor: OK, I knew Keith wasn’t going anywhere; I was referring more to the goaltending situation.

Eakins: Yeah, we’re, that’s partly…in discussions as well and the staff, like with Kelly [Buchberger] and Steve and Freddy [Chabot] all of their contracts were expiring. So, you know, we’re in discussions there.

WRAP UP

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  • Ramsay will help the Oilers, and it will make the coaching staff better, but the Oilers still have many other areas they need to improve. I've read some people who believe this hire was the best move they will make all summer. If you believe that then this team won't be close to a playoff contender. Eakins improved his staff, but now it is up to the GM to improve the quality of players the coaching staff will work with.

  • Huge props to Baggedmilk for an excellent job of photoshop. I found the picture of Scott Baio, star of the 1980s sitcom Charles in Charge, and BM did a stellar job of switching in Eakins for Baio. Slow clap.

  • Canada announced their world junior staff today. Benoit Groulx from Gatineau in the QMJHL will be the head coach, while Scott Walker, Guelph in the OHL, and Dave Lowry, Victoria from WHL, will be the assistants. Derek Laxdal is the only WHL coach to have three consecutive 50-win seasons and he just coached the Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup. Laxdal told me last week one of his goals was to be on the WJC coaching staff, but I believe he might have a pro opportunity and that is why he wasn't added to the team. There is no way Team Canada overlooks his resume.

    **Edit.** At 11 am MDT, Laxdal was announced as head coach for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Under-18 tourney in August. He could coach that team and still be part of a pro team, and I wonder if that is why he is on that staff, instead of the WJC which happens in December/January? **

  • Joe McConnell is the director of amateur scouting for the Dallas Stars. He was hired last summer. Prior to that he spent 18 years as a scout for the Detroit Red Wings, and was their director of scouting from 2003 until July of 2013. "The one aspect of the game that has changed is that big guys have more skill now. There are more big, skilled kids." McDonnell said.

    About this year's draft he said, "I could see kids ranked between 11-40 going anywhere amongst those spots. Many teams have different rankings in that range." It should make for an interesting first round on June 27th.

  • Close race for the Conn Smyth between Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams and Drew Doughty. Kopitar has 26 points and he registered a point in 19 of their 25 games. Carter has 24 points and scored in 17 games, while Williams has 24 points and he scored in 15 of 25 games. Kopitar has played just under 21 minutes a night, and he plays in every situation.

    Doughty has been excellent on the backend. He's playing 28 minutes/game and he faces most of the tough matchups and he's chipped in with 17 points. I have it between Kopitar and Doughty, and I'm leaning ever so slightly towards Doughty.

    Who would you pick?

Recently by Jason Gregor:

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One of Canada's most versatile sports personalities. Jason hosts The Jason Gregor Show, weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m., on TSN 1260, and he writes a column every Monday in the Edmonton Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JasonGregor
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#51 Sketchy
June 13 2014, 08:57AM
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I am so excited! Is today the day Lowe leaves the team? The possibility has my giddy!!! Could it be? Accountability from the oilers??? All is right with the world again!!!! Maybe.....

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#52 Zarny
June 13 2014, 09:59AM
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Nice interview JG.

Eakins certainly made some mistakes last year. Good leaders can admit their mistakes, know their strengths & weaknesses, and surround themselves with good people who compliment their weaknesses. Hopefully Ramsay can be the right counter-balance.

The reality though is that coaching is not Edmonton's problem. "Craig MacTavish will need to supply Eakins with better players" was the most important line in the article.

I think it's the right move to replace Bucky and Smith but let's keep it real. We're talking about a roster where half the players should have been in the AHL not the NHL. There is not one D on the team who should ever be on the ice against elite players. Coaching isn't the reason Jeff Petry isn't a top pairing D; he's just not that good.

What I like about Eakins is his competitiveness and intensity. When MacT was hired he commented "I think we lack a true understanding of just how difficult it is to have success at this level."

And he's absolutely right. If the young players on the Oilers ever got between a guy like Chris Pronger and the Stanley Cup they would sh*t their pants.

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#53 Zarny
June 13 2014, 10:02AM
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Conn Smythe - Drew Doughty

Quick wasn't that good in the first 2 rounds. Williams and Carter have both been clutch but Doughty has been a stud every round.

Hank would be a consideration if LA didn't have 3-4 worthy candidates.

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#54 Zarny
June 13 2014, 10:04AM
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@Sketchy

Sorry about your luck but Lowe isn't going anywhere.

Nicholson's roll will be more CEO-like for all of Rexall sports. It's a business position not a hockey position. Lowe will still be President of Hockey Operations but he'll probably report to Nicholson.

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#55 Zarny
June 13 2014, 10:09AM
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Frank the dog wrote:

Those Assistants were little more than competent hockey players on a team driven by ridiculous skill.

Their record shows that they were hopelessly out of their depth as Assistant Coaches. Their replacement by one or more competent coaches is the most positive development this team has seen since MacT was Coach.

What a ridiculous statement.

Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger were certainly more than competent hockey players.

That doesn't mean they were good coaches but what did you expect them to do with a roster where half the players shouldn't even be in the NHL?

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