It seems as if there have always been a least some fans who believed Dallas Eakins wasn’t the right man for the job, even before he actually stepped behind the bench and coached a single game. As I recall, the argument against Eakins in the beginning was a lack of experience, that with a young team, experience should be seen as a minimum requirement. Not unreasonable ways to look at things, I suppose, but even the greatest coaches had to start somewhere with no experience on their resume.
But his first month as an NHL head coach saw the team post terrible result, and even though there was a lot of bad luck around the Oilers that month, the losses did little to draw additional support to team Eakins. Almost before it had started another Oilers season was swirling down the drain and the fans wanted answers, and they didn’t always like what they heard from Eakins. Often criticized as being arrogant or a know-it-all (for what it’s worth, I never understood these criticisms) more fans became convinced that Eakins needed to go. When the 2013/14 season ended with the Oilers once again near the very bottom of the standings more joined their ranks and the voices grew louder.
Still though, I held out hope. Eakins always struck me as a smart guy, and I tend to put my money on the smart guy whenever I can. That isn’t to say that I was a fan of everything he did during his first 82 games as the Oilers head coach, but rather that I saw him as someone who I thought (and I still do think) will figure things out as an NHL someday. And I wanted that someday to be while he was still employed by the Oilers. Seeing how this season has played out though I’m not sure there is much of a chance of that happening. In fact, he might not even make it through the week.
With games in Dallas, Nashville, and St. Louis there’s a reasonable chance that the Oilers go winless this week. That would push the tam’s current losing streak to nine games; at that point I’m not sure Craig MacTavish is going to be able to have him behind the bench when the Oilers return home. MacTavish has preached about consistency and the benefits that it can bring to a team, and he’s not wrong about that, but there is a point where maintaining that consistency simply becomes impractical. With three losses this week the Oilers might arrive at that point.
And the crazy thing is the things that are most going to contribute to Eakins downfall aren’t things he’s got much control over.
Long before training camp started everyone knew that Leon Draisaitl was going to make this team. The depth down the middle of the roster was paper thin, there was almost no way for him not to make the team. Rather than address the depth issue during the summer MacTavish opted the gamble that Draisaitl would be capable of playing on the second line of an NHL team this season. It was a flawed plan from the start and one that hasn’t worked out well for the Oilers.
In Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon the Oilers have two proven NHL players on their first and fourth lines. And the third line spot is secure too, that could be either Draisaitl or Mark Arcobello, and I think both could do quite well there. Unfortunately on any given night only one can play there, the other is forced to play above where they belong, and that leads to problems. A competitive NHL team doesn’t have a hole like that on its second line. It puts the Oilers in a hole almost every night and there is nothing the coaching staff can do about it.
If I had to pick what it is about Dallas Eakins tenure that has confused me the most, it would be his use of the defenders available to him. Scratching Jeff Petry for a game, scratching Martin Marincin for two weeks, these are odd decisions. Playing Justin Schultz, Nikita Nikitin, and Andrew Ference as much as he has – they’re first, second, and fourth in average ice time among regular defenders – is perhaps even more bizarre. Taken together there is an argument to be made that Eakins should be fired just based on how he’s deployed his defence.
But ignore the bizarre and look at what Eakins was given to work with. Petry and free agent signing Mark Fayne were known quantities heading into the season. Marincin looked good in a small sample last season and was decent bet to provide more of the same. And then there is a the trio of Schultz, Nikitin, and Ference, not one of whom should have been assumed to be a top four player, despite what their cap hits might indicate. Amazingly that’s better than what Eakins was given in his first season but it’s not nearly good enough.
The defence MacTavish put together was built on bad bet after bad bet. Ference will have a rebound season. Schultz will learn how to play at both ends of the rink. Nikitin can play on the second pairing or higher. Add in the unknown with Marincin and gambling on more than one of those three things happening is asking for trouble. Eakins hasn’t done himself any favours with the defence, but you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
MacTavish’s third roster gamble was going with the tandem of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth between the pipes. The results of this roll of the dice have been beyond ugly, but unlike the plan for the defence and the centres, this wasn’t a terrible idea. In August I had this to say about the Oilers goaltenders:
The combination of Scrivens and Fasth isn't a sure thing but going into the season with the two of them isn't the worst bet the Oilers are likely to make this season. And it's a risk that has a reasonable chance of paying off. I like it.
The market for goaltenders in ridiculously inefficient, and because of the salary cap it’s something that a smart team will try to exploit. Average goaltending can be had for relatively cheap; that’s what the Oilers, and I, thought that had. Perhaps more so with Scrivens than Fasth, but between them average didn’t seem like a reach. For the first 21 games of the season though, the Oilers have gotten goaltending that is probably about equal to AHL replacement level. Between them, Scrivens and Fasth haven’t stopped an average of nine out of every ten shots; that is almost unbelievably bad. If this was any other team in the NHL I would sit back and marvel at just how bad these two have been. Because they play for the Oilers I find significantly less joy in it.
If the Oilers had gotten average goaltending so far this season they’d be 17 goals better. That’s likely good for six points in the standings, which wouldn’t make the team a contender, but it would be enough that those calling for Eakins to be fired would be a much smaller group. Who gets the blame for the goaltending is up for debate, personally I lean towards a few weeks of bad luck that’ll balance out given time, but very few would list Eakins as the biggest problem with the goaltending.
The bottom line is the Oilers haven’t won enough games this season and when teams don’t win coaches get fired, but the reasons why the Oilers haven’t won enough games are far more complicated than just the man behind the bench. If things don’t improve soon, I think Eakins will pay for the failures of this team with his job. And he has absolutely made mistakes during his short stint as the Oilers head coach, there is no denying that, but the failures this season have more to do with a combination of the team he was given and bad luck than anything he has does to steer the Oilers into the rocks.