“Toronto Spoiled Me,” Says Eakins

By HOWARD BERGER

EDMONTON (Oct. 29) – Coaching in the National Hockey League isn’t about to choke Dallas Eakins, even if he has a figurative hand-print on his neck just four weeks into the season.

As rookie bench boss of the Edmonton Oilers – scuffling, like most anticipated, with a 3-8-2 record after 13 games – Eakins is already under the gun here in northern Alberta. Not that you’d know it by looking at, or talking to him. We had a nice chat this morning in the stands at Rexall Place after the Oilers’ game-day skate and Dallas later invited me into his office for the photo, below (I made sure to crop out the untidy portion of his desk). Oilers have been crippled by injury and compromised, somewhat, by precarious goaltending – the latter, hardly unexpected. But, Eakins swears he’s enjoying the tumult.   

“Yeah, I love it,” he told me. “My only problem so far is I’m not used to my team struggling, after all the good years in Toronto. It spoiled me.”

Dallas, of course, was referring to his NHL audition – a largely prosperous four-year term as head coach of Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs affiliate in the American Hockey League. It was highlighted by advancement to the Calder Cup final in 2012, where Marlies were swept by the Norfolk Admirals. Another first-place finish in the AHL North last season put Eakins on the coaching short-list of several teams, including Vancouver Canucks. Ultimately, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish hired him here in Edmonton to replace Ralph Kruger, who lasted only one year behind the Oilers bench. And, it’s been uphill for Dallas from the outset.

“I have no regrets, to this point,” Eakins said today when asked about his forthright, somewhat jocular rapport with local media wags. “I’m an honest guy and I’ll address just about any topic… though, if a question is not asked, I certainly won’t volunteer information. I haven’t second-guessed anything yet, pertaining to the team, the media, or the city. I’ve got a [long-term] plan in place and I’m not going to waver from it.”

Dallas received a second-hand compliment on Monday from ex-Marlies pupil Nazem Kadri – now a full-timer with the Leafs. Kadri said Eakins helped his career immeasurably by being honest and “kicking me in the butt when I needed it.” During the lockout last season, Eakins impressively structured Kadri’s game and a new, much-improved player emerged once the 48-game NHL schedule began in January. 

DALLAS EAKINS SPEAKS TO REPORTERS THIS MORNING AT REXALL PLACE.

“Well, Naz put [the compliment] in a nice way,” Eakins cracked earlier today, knowing how unrelenting he’d been with the young center. “It’s a good feeling to hear words like that. At least, [a former player] is not saying terrible things about you on your way out the door. But, give Naz the credit. As a coach, it was my job to adjust the steering wheel with him. It was Naz who made the choice to improve. Ultimately, it’s always up to the player. And, I’ll say this: Nazem has the perfect coach right now, because I know Randy Carlyle will not take his foot off the pedal.”

GOOD CALL ON REIMER

Though Jonathan Bernier is the Leafs’ No. 1 goalie, Carlyle made the proper choice by giving James Reimer the start tonight here in Edmonton (Sportsnet, 9 p.m. EST). Reimer was terrific in the second period of Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh at Air Canada Centre – stopping all 16 Penguin shots in the second period, enabling Leafs to score three unanswered goals in the third.

With consecutive-night games to begin this western swing (tonight here; tomorrow in Calgary), Bernier and Reimer were both going to play and Reimer earned the opening assignment with his splendid performance against Crosby, Malkin and Co. Tomorrow’s match against the Flames begins an hour earlier than tonight – at 6 p.m. local time, 8 o’clock in Toronto. So, Leafs will need both their goalies to be sharp.

By the way, Flames president Brian Burke will not be in Calgary when his former team arrives. Double-B is in Toronto visiting his daughters.

NICE TO BE BACK

I had a wonderful “reunion” this morning with so many friends in media; Leafs management and players during my first visit to an NHL arena since Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup more than 16 months ago.

Catching up with Joe Bowen, Jim Ralph, Greg Millen, Paul Hendrick, Mark Askin, Rosie DiManno, Mike Zeisberger, Jonas Siegel, Chris Johnston and others was truly a pleasure. It was also nice to renew acquaintance with Leafs’ media relations director, Pat Park; team doctor, Noah Forman; the equipment guys (Brian Papineau, Bobby Hastings, Tom Blatchford); director of hockey and scouting administration, Reid Mitchell; manager of team services, Dave Griffiths; vice-president of hockey operations, Dave Poulin and such veteran players as Reimer, Dion Phaneuf, Dave Clarkson, Carl Gunnarsson, Joffrey Lupul and John-Michael Liles. It’s great to be back, if only briefly.

As always, my trusty Nikon wasn’t beyond reach as the Oilers and Maple Leafs skated this morning at Rexall Place: 

MORNING VIEW, OUT MY HOTEL WINDOW, OF REXALL PLACE (LEFT) AND UPPER-DECK OF COMMONWEALTH STADIUM IN THE DISTANCE (RIGHT).

FROM ZAMBONI ENTRANCE AT SOUTH END OF REXALL PLACE, THE OILERS SKATE.

FORMERLY NORTHLANDS COLISEUM, THE ARENA HERE IN EDMONTON (ABOVE) WAS CAPITAL OF THE HOCKEY UNIVERSE IN THE MID-1980’s WHEN WAYNE GRETZKY, MARK MESSIER AND OTHERS DEPICTED IN BANNERS (BOTTOM-LEFT) WON FOUR STANLEY CUP TITLES IN FIVE YEARS, BEGINNING IN 1984 (BOTTOM-RIGHT).

GABBING IN ARENA TODAY WITH MY OL’ HOCKEY TRAVELLING PAL, ROSIE DiMANNO – COVERING THIS LEAF TRIP FOR THE TORONTO STAR (I’M HAPPIER THAN I LOOK).

RANDY CARLYLE KEEPS AN EYE ON HIS PLAYERS (ABOVE) DURING LEAFS MORNING SKATE, THEN CALLS A MEETING (BELOW) TOWARD THE END.

LEAFS GOALIE JONATHAN BERNIER – BACKING UP JAMES REIMER TONIGHT – SHARES A LAUGH AT BENCH WITH EQUIPMENT MANAGERS TOM BLATCHFORD (LEFT) AND BRIAN PAPINEAU (RIGHT). BERNIER SHOULD GET THE CALL TOMORROW IN CALGARY.

RANDY CARLYLE’S MEDIA SCRUMS ARE ALWAYS CROWDED – HOME AND AWAY.

FAMOUS NAME AND ARROW ? POINTS TO HOME OF EDMONTON OILERS (BELOW). REXALL PLACE (OPENED IN 1973) IS THIRD-OLDEST ARENA IN NHL, BEHIND MADISON SQUARE GARDEN IN NEW YORK (1968) AND NASSAU COLISEUM IN UNIONDALE (1972). EDMONTON OIL KINGS OF THE WESTERN (JUNIOR) HOCKEY LEAGUE ALSO PLAY HERE.

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