There’s a small but extremely vocal minority of people who hold a strong influence over the way the Oilers are covered who are even still defending Dallas Eakins. No matter what changes with the team, it wasn’t Dallas Eakins’ fault and Todd Nelson just isn’t going to get the appropriate praise. The way they compete doesn’t matter, the mood in the room doesn’t matter, the working environment just doesn’t matter to this minority. They are just Eakins disciples and that’s all there is to it. Naturally I’m talking about B
loggers the General Manager.
MacT hires Eakins. Eakins fails to get absolute best from Petry. MacT blames Petry. MacT fires Eakins. Petry improves. MacT trades him. Ugh!
— David Staples (@dstaples) March 3, 2015
@dstaples Wait a sec. I thought you guys all LOVED Eakins?
— Mark Spector (@SportsnetSpec) March 3, 2015
Ok, it actually appears to some misguided people as if bloggers are the Eakins disciples and not the man running the Edmonton Oilers. If I squint at this long enough I think I can wager a guess as to why. There are a growing number of non-traditional writers who cover the Oilers and also have an interest in hockey analytics. Dallas Eakins adopted (some) analytics and even pushed the club to (rightly) hire an analytics consultant of fame. Naturally there could be a tendency to side with a man who did that despite the fact that Eakins’ record was terrible.
I mean it didn’t really happen, but you could see how that might have happened and by extension you can see how some people might overstate or oversimplify your position if you show any kind of nuance about it.
Right now is where I put the disclaimer that I am only speaking for myself. I think my position on Dallas Eakins the coach is a little more complex than “He was great” or “He was terrible.” There are many aspects to the job of being a coach. Off the top of my head I’d say the main parts of the job are tactics, roster assembly, teaching, and performance maximization. And, just because it can’t be easy, all those are related to each other and there’s also a team of coaches you are responsible for as well.
Under Dallas Eakins THIS YEAR, there was a huge jump in the underlying numbers at even strength. We have observed time and time again that this is an indication of positive things with hockey clubs. Over time, teams that generate more shot attempts than they give up tend to win games. The playoffs are basically a list of the teams that do this on a regular basis, with a couple of exceptions, and Eakins had the Oilers (at one point) trading shot attempts and scoring chances significantly better than they had been before.
That’s a real positive, but he was still losing like crazy. I mean, it was a disaster to start the year for the second season in a row. Goaltending was brutal, Yakupov was still showing up blank on the scoresheet, Eberle looked uncommitted. The negativity was growing daily. Something was wrong.
Dallas Eakins was let go, Todd Nelson took over and all of the things that were going wrong with the team outside of the fancies and the winning started to change. The players started talking about the difference in practices, the mood of the room lightened up, Eberle started playing his best hockey in years, Nail Yakupov looked like a real player again.
These are real changes that happened and if you listen to what the players say and what the media guys who are in the room all the time say, then you can start to piece together that Dallas Eakins was contributing to some of the problems before and Todd Nelson is part of the turn-around.
I think we are all smart enough to look at the situation as it had been and what followed after he was let go and are capable of saying that not everything Dallas Eakins did was good but not everything he did was horrible, either.
For me, I think what Eakins did tactically to get a team with a weak defense and two NHL centers into a position where they were close to even in possession was fantastic. Colour me impressed. The Oilers should have been getting their face caved in every night 5v5 but they weren’t. I have a lot of time for that even if the team was picking up losses at a breakneck pace. I want to know more about it. What were they doing exactly? How was this accomplished?
Edmonton’s rolling 20 game Score Adjusted CF%: pic.twitter.com/c04CJJiP6W
— Stephen Burtch(@SteveBurtch) March 3, 2015
We know that Eakins was progressive in adopting tactics that analytics identified as beneficial to use and the results were very positive when it came to shots and shot attempts. That’s very interesting and I wish he would have had better goaltending early on because I think some very interesting conversations were killed before they could happen because Ben Scrivens couldn’t handle the puck.
The Oilers finished with a 44.3% Corsi For last year which is incredibly bad. When Eakins was fired in December the club was at 50.9% Corsi For. That is a stunning turnaround in something that has proven to be important to sustained success.
That success in the fancies under Eakins took a hit after Nelson took over, although it’s not as if his lineup has been exactly the same. He is without Taylor Hall and David Perron. Pouliot was injured on and off a bit as well so those are three quality wingers he hasn’t been able to ice for large portions of his tenure. That’s a big caveat in Todd’s favour when we look at the decline in possession numbers in his regime.
However, it is still acceptable to say “Dallas Eakins did a good job at getting even strength possession better,” and think he was a lousy coach.
The head coach of a National Hockey League team has a lot of say in how his roster is constructed. These guys are consulted on potential trades, consulted about who to send down, and they control the roster as it is deployed on the ice to a very high degree. With Dallas Eakins as the coach this year I’m not sure if the Oilers ever once played their optimal lineup.
For reasons I simply don’t understand, Eakins valued players like Brad Hunt ahead of Martin Marincin and even on one occasion valued him over Jeff Petry. We saw Acton stay with the team ahead of others who clearly outplayed him while guys who played their guts out were sent back to the minors. It only took Eakins four games into his first season to make Yakupov a healthy scratch. What I’m getting at is there were oddities in his decision making.
We can only speculate as to what deals he was involved in more than others, but we can be sure that he had a strong voice when it came to his roster. This is a man who had a close relationship with his general manager and that GM is still, even now, Eakins’ biggest and most vocal supporter.
From my perspective, he did things that directly hurt his chances of winning and played favourites with his lineup based on things that didn’t always include winning.
With Todd Nelson we’ve seen Martin Marincin back, Keith Aulie relegated to the last option, and Nail Yakupov given a more prominent place on the team. There’s a higher value placed on Edmonton’s own developed players and I think that’s important philosophically for the club. I think it’s important for the culture of the organization that Anton Lander was given a chance to re-establish himself as a real prospect by virtue of his coach trusting him as a player.
But that’s when things start bleeding into the next point.
TEACHING & PERFORMANCE MAXIMIZATION
These two things are so closely linked that I can’t find a way to separate them effectively. They go hand in hand in professional sports. Part of the job of being a coach is about developing players to become the best versions of themselves and that’s where teaching meets performance. As a player learns, he should perform better.
I think that everybody who has attended school and doesn’t have chemically induced memory problems from that time in their life can understand that no two teachers have the same style. Even when teaching the exact same curriculum, the approaches can be wildly different. Some people respond well to certain styles of teaching better than others. It’s the responsibility of a good teacher to figure out what the best methods are with each individual and get the most out of them with the skills they have.
I think it’s fair to question how practices were run, how ideas were explained to the players, and how ice-time was used to reward players who were doing what was asked of them.
When Nelson took over the very first thing we heard about was the difference in practice. Players went from standing around to skating hard all the time. Practice with Eakins might have seen the whiteboard pulled out three times where somebody like Daryl Sutter has never once used the whiteboard in his entire time in Los Angeles. Some people might respond well to the X’s and O’s being drawn out as Eakins often did, but there were too many individuals struggling to let his methodology go unquestioned.
Eakins would verbally say that Nail Yakupov was doing all the things the coaching staff would ask of him but then not play the young Russian in the second half of the third period or at all in overtime. In terms of teaching, that’s like verbally telling someone they’re doing a great job but stiffing them on their grade. Do that enough times and people are going to tune you out. If a player like Yakupov looked like he couldn’t do anything right then maybe it’s because he felt like he couldn’t do anything right.
A good coach is going to get the most out of his players by knowing what makes them tick, by knowing how to motivate them, by knowing the best ways of communicating what they need their players to do. In that respect he is part teacher, part amateur psychologist. Given how the changes in the mood of the team and the individual performances of key Oilers, it might be safe to assume that in these areas that are difficult to quantify Dallas Eakins struggled and Todd Nelson is excelling (or at very least just not struggling).
Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle look like different players under Nelson. Anton Lander looks like a new man. The games appear closer and blowouts aren’t happening in bunches. The team is working in an environment that looks healthy again. People are having fun, which is good considering they get paid to play a game. The coach affects all of these things.
SO DO YOU LOVE EAKINS OR HATE HIM?
I don’t even know the guy! It’s too simple to just assume that everything Dallas Eakins did was complete garbage. His W/L record was a nightmare and there’s no way he should have survived a pro job with it, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t get some things right.
It’s also too simple just to say, “Everything is better now so Todd Nelson is wonderful.” The Oilers are still a losing team and now they are losing the possession battle more with Todd Nelson than they were before him. The fact that everybody feels better is nice but it doesn’t change the fact that the team is still failing to pick up wins and is now being out-chanced more.
If you read everything I wrote above then you know I have an overall unfavourable view of Dallas Eakins based on a variety of different things he did and I doubt I’m alone in that. If I had to pick between the two that we’ve seen this year I would take Todd Nelson every time. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn a critical eye towards Nelson either.
I just hate it when we see intelligent people trying to reduce someone else’s argument down to its most simplistic form. Spector knows what he’s doing when he’s trying to paint a group of people with a brush that makes them look unreasonable and obviously wrong. He knows who he’s targeting specifically without even having to mention his name when he says to David Staples that he just thought all the Cult of Hockey writers felt the same way. He’s constructing a narrative and taking a jab at a guy all at the same time, and that doesn’t have any basis in reality.
It isn’t my job to defend other people who are perfectly capable of defending themselves, but I do think it’s an excellent way to bring up the fact that you can think Eakins was doing some good things tactically while still also thinking that he was in general performing poorly as a coach in Edmonton. We are allowed to have a little complexity in the way we evaluate these men.
If the petty bickering could end, I bet there could be much more interesting discussions about what the two coaches do differently and how that affects the team that is a shade more nuanced and ultimately better. There’s no reason one side of the discussion has to be “wrong” because they raise questions about shot attempts and scoring chances. Just as the other side isn’t “wrong” because they see changes in mood and team culture.
Just be open to having a complicated view of things and this isn’t an issue at all.