Janus-Headed Hockey: Eakins' Old School Side Struggling to Survive in the New NHL

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Dallas Eakins held (another) amazing press conference today. I'm going to focus on his comments about Jeff Petry and defensive construction and mostly let Eakins speak for himself. Here's the whole press conference.

On Jeff Petry: The Evolution of a Defensemen

Question (Bob Stauffer)

Jeff Petry tough road trip in terms of the plus/minus. He's a very polarizing figure here in town. And, just your thoughts on what you're seeing out of Jeff. You certainly use him a lot in terms of the match-ups agaisnt the other teams best lines. Your thoughts on the player and maybe some of the criticism that's been directed his way."

Answer, Eakins

Yea, I think a lot of it is unfair. You know this is a guy that we constantly play against the other teams' top lines. You know, we haven't had a whole lot of experience on our blue line. He's been able to take those minutes. And, the biggest thing with Jeff is that he wants the minutes. He's come to me and he wants to be that guy.

And it's an evolution of a defenseman. I think in the market you've got to be very, very careful of pushing guys out of it too quickly. And, I think if you look around at different organizations you can easily get down on a guy, move him along and then you are dying for him back [editor's note: ahem… Gilbert, Vis, Pits Souray want a word].

And, Petey's a guy were continuing to work with. I know he had a rough road trip. I don't know I think if you went back through the last 25 or 30 games leading up to that I would guess that he was pretty close to a even player going up against the other guys' top lines.

There's the… and this happens constantly with bigger players. Petey's a big guy. And, for whatever reason, everybody wants every big guy to be nasty and mean and I think that is unfair. Why don't we want our smaller guys to be nasty and mean? It's always the big guy that has to be that way.

And, I think Petey's shown at times this year that he can manufacture that nastiness, but in the end he's just going to be a real solid defenseman for us that we should be able to play against the top lines, the second lines, give us some PK minutes and I'm hopeful in the future that he can take on some second line powerplay minutes. He's shown some flashes of that.

Yea, with the physicality, we've talked about it before with the hits charts every night. I'm not sure if they're right or if they are wrong. But, if they're right or wrong across the league, uh, within defensemen the last time I looked, I think he was in the top 20 in hits, so a lot of this is, I think, we become so focused on the player sometimes, but for me he's taken steps forward. He's still learning his trade and it takes defensemen sometimes quite a while to get it. We've got to be very careful dumping on this young man.

On Old School vs. New School Defensive Construction

Question (Mark Spector)

"In that past you'd say that if he doesn't want to play that mean game that you're talking about, he should have some partners or someone else on defense that can fill in that role. Are we still in 2014 in need of someone back on your defenseive corp that plays the game that you describe?"

EAKINS: "what game did I describe?"

SPECTOR: "well, the mean, I'm scared of you defensemen. Do we still need that guy, or are we past that?"

Answer (Eakins)

Well, you know what? I've always loved having toughness on my teams. It's the old school part of me and the old school part of me is starting to get questions.

When you look around the league now, the teams are changing their makeup. There's teams that are playing a heavy game, but not a lot of meanness. They just go and they check and they play high-pace so, it's a cross… I don't have the answer for you.

I can easily stand here and argue "Yes, we need that." We've got a guy back there that's more than willing to fill the role with Mark Fraser and, uh, one side of me says "absolutely, we need the toughness up front, we need it on our back end."

I can go right over, two days later and go the other way and say, "We need puck moving guys, we just need to play fast and that's it."

And, it goes back to, I just remember a conversation I had with Paul Maurice. I was an assistant coach and we were talking about defensemen, it was about half way during the year and he said to me: "go, right now, I want to know how many hits Lidstrom has, right now."

And I went and I looked and I thought it was wrong. It was like half-way during the year, the guy's the best defenseman in the league, best defenseman. And, he had one hit. And, I was like "that can't be right, he's had to have run into someone else."

But, Mark [Spector], I… and that's the honest to God's truth, there's one side of me that says: "Yes, we need to old school it and we've got to have those guys." And, then there's another side of me looking at how teams are, some other teams are building and… I'm not sure.

Here's my thoughts.

First, there's been a lot of talk recently about the value of defensive-defensemen.

Following the Diaz trade a lot of talk revolved around the use of Douglas Murray. Read these two pieces. One from Andrew Berkshire. And, another from Chris Boyle.

Here's two more general pieces on topic by Luka Ryder.

And, here's a very famous quote from Phoenix Coyotes' Coach David Tippett on the subject:

His approach changed in the mid-1990s, when he served as head coach and general manager in the IHL, when he had to justify his payroll decisions. He was searching for a new way to evaluate the game, to understand "exactly what was happening on the ice."

"I'll give you an example," he said. "We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can't move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn't defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he's making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he's only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

To my mind, to borrow a phrase from Eakins, there's been an evolution of defensemen in the NHL, the player type they are, the style of play they employ, their on-ice usage and how rosters are constructed around them.

Eakins is clearly aware of what's going on. Yet… he's at war with himself over how to handle both his roster makeup (in consultation with GM Craig MacTavish) and how to deploy it.

Second, I've commented on this before. Here and here I've argued that Eakins and MacTavish based on their public statements and their various on and off ice moves are exhibiting the divided mind of the contemporary hockey decision maker.

There's an old school part and a new school part that co-exist awkwardly within the same person. The old school part values a variety of "intangible" factors like grit, truculence, character, etc. This part also tends to prefer a safe, dump in, crash and bang, 'up the glass and out' style of hockey.

Justin Bourne recently tackled the psychology of "dump in" hockey in relation to score effects. Here's an interesting exerpt:

A third cause, and the only thing that I believe coaches affect, stems from something like the rat food-reward experiments we used to do in my psychology classes.

With a lead, coaches are less prone to use guys who "take risks," which seems to be a trait that goes hand-in-hand with "having talent." The last thing a coach wants is to see Nazem Kadri make a dangle inside his own blueline, turn the puck over, and give up a goal.

What they do want, is Jay McClement to chip the puck out of the zone because, like fans, they’re less stressed out when the puck isn’t in their zone. So, it gets out, coach feels relief, sees who made the clear, and the rat has been rewarded. He wants more of that.

Players know this (even if they don’t relate it to psychology), so they try to appease coaches late in games to continue getting more shifts. What you’re doing now is basically using your less talented players more while asking your more talented players to play like less talented players, because you’re terrified of the odd moment where it’s glaringly obvious who messed up. You’ve created a plan where you’re actively giving the puck to your opponent at every opportunity.

But, for the players, it’s get the puck out, get more ice. The rat—this time the player—gets rewarded.

In the D-zone? Chip it out. Here you go, have it back, now we’ll sag and try to stop you. In the neutral zone? Chip it in. Here you go, you never have to defend against us, just take it. This way when your opponent goes in and scores, there’s not a single player to point at to say "Here’s why they scored on us and came back." Instead you get to say "They just made some plays and took it to us in the third."

A new school part, as outlined by Tippett above has a quite different approach which appears to all the old school world as risky, but is actually simply a matter of puck possession and management.

Today, Eakins said some interesting things. He confirmed a pet theory of mine and suggested there's hope for a modern Oilers roster with him as the coach. He also warned us that on any given day, he may just let his old school side run wild and put Mark Fraser on the ice to try and punch faces.

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