Edmonton Oilers: Remembering both Todd McLellan and Dallas Eakins

There are 2 inalienable truths about coaching in the NHL, even with the Edmonton Oilers.  You always have a shelf life in any organization without exception.  Even if it’s the same message, another voice needs to come in to preach it as eventually, the players won’t pay attention anymore.  Coaches are usually also casualties of changes in ownership or changes in the GM seat, as in both cases they usually want to bring in their own people.

Secondly, unless you turn into an inflexible dinosaur-like Mike Babcock or Darryl Sutter – then you will usually get a job somewhere else.  It’s almost inevitable.  It’s been no different for 2 ex-Oilers head coaches, who are now coaching 2 of the 3 California teams in LA and Anaheim.  Let’s look at those 2 now.

Todd McLellan, head coach of the LA Kings

McLellan wasn’t out of work for very long after he was fired by the Oilers in November 2018 and then named head coach of the Kings that offseason in April 2019.  He came to the Oilers for a nice chunk of change, $3 million per season, the highest-paid coach in NHL history.

McLellan is perhaps most well known for coaching the Oilers during their trip to the playoffs in 2017, their first since 2006.  In the 1st round, the Oilers beat Mclellan’s old team – and perennial playoff chokers – the San Jose Sharks 4 games to 2.  But, being newcomers to the playoff picture, they eventually lost to the Anaheim Ducks in the 2nd round 4 games to 3.

Still, as this was the 1st trip to the playoffs in 11 years for the Oilers, the season was still considered a resounding success.  The very next season, however, the Oilers went right back to being out of the playoff picture.  In the 2018-19 season, we got a glimpse into the ugly side of coaching, as the team was headed once again towards a non-playoff year.  Even though it wasn’t Todd McLellan’s fault, then GM Peter Chiarelli pulled a textbook tactic out of the GM’s playbook and fired his coach.

He was replaced on an interim basis by Ken Hitchcock, who by the way remains with the team to this day as an advisor.  With Hitchcock’s extensive resume, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is a sounding board for both Tippett and Holland.

Chiarelli himself would go on to be fired in early 2019, to be replaced on an interim basis by Keith Gretzky, who was eventually replaced by Ken Holland who went on to hire Dave Tippett to replace Hitchcock.  Both, of course, remain in those posts to this day.

McLellan is now in his 2nd season as head coach of the LA Kings, and he has his work cut out for him, as his club is in the infancy of a rebuild and the team is a mixture of young, green players and past their prime guys with boat anchor contracts who will be with the club until their contracts expire.

Oh, and Drew Doughty is there too but he’s not living up to his huge contract the way he used to.  Probably even getting Doughty to play to his potential would be considered a victory for the Kings.  In this cap climate, it’s not like the team can trade a guy with an $11 million cap hit even if he was playing up to it.

As you would expect from a rebuilding squad, his team currently sits in last place in the Honda West division – a blend of the American teams from the old Pacific divisions and Central divisions.  On the plus side, the Kings currently have more cap space than any other NHL team with just short of $13 million.  That’s something, I guess.

Dallas Eakins, head coach of the Anaheim Ducks

Dallas Eakins came to the Oilers from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL in the 2013 offseason as the hottest coaching prospect of the day after he had coached a winning program in Toronto and had a reputation for excelling at developing young prospects, something the young rebuilding Oilers of the day desperately needed from their coach.

He replaced Ralph Krueger as coach, who was unceremoniously fired over Skype by then-GM Craig Mactavish for an inexplicable reason as the team had improved under Krueger and the core players of the day – like Taylor Hall – liked playing for him.  Hall now plays for Krueger in Buffalo, as a nice aside.

Eakins turned out to be a bit of a dumpster fire here as a coach.  He emphasized heavily that he wanted the players conditioned and with a high fitness level, and this is all well and good but it also resulted in amateurish micromanaging of certain things.  For example, he replaced the snacks for the media at press conferences – previously junk food like donuts and pastries – with healthy food like veggie trays and fresh fruit platters.

On the surface it would be under the guise of “setting an example for the players,” but of course when the media is interviewing the coach there are no players present, so any example you’re trying to set would simply be lost because his target audience wasn’t present.  The media complained about this and eventually, the team relented on it, although whether this was before or after Eakins was fired is unknown.

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He also instituted a ridiculous new defensive philosophy called the “swarm defence” – from what I understand it was a variation of the neutral zone trap, in essence, although I never fully understood what it was.  It seemed as if I wasn’t the only one as a lot of the players were rumoured to have complained about being confused by it as well.

It certainly didn’t help that Eakins was tone-deaf to the fact that by and large, his D corps were very young and inexperienced and still learning to play defence period, and a lot of them were guys playing above their weight class in the lineup.  Logically he should’ve instituted a much simpler defensive scheme that the veteran players were familiar with from other teams and that young players could learn and grasp quickly.

His swarm defence might’ve been better suited to a more experienced team, but even then I haven’t heard of any other team trying this with their D corps so maybe the philosophy itself was flawed, I don’t know.  It certainly didn’t help that he didn’t seem to do anything to discipline players who were rumoured to put local nightclubs and bars at a higher priority than their commitment to their own craft and development.

The veterans, of course, a lot of whom were already married with children, were more committed to the team and their families than the Edmonton nightlife, and they resented the young players for not committing fully to their own development.  A lot of the veterans of the day came to the Oilers from other winning organizations where this type of behaviour would not be tolerated.

This was rumoured to be a factor in the Taylor Hall trade years later, as he was allegedly one of the worst offenders of this.  As you can imagine, this created a pretty toxic work environment for everyone.  Eakins wasn’t given much of a roster to work with, but he certainly didn’t do a very good job at controlling the things he could control.

This team was bound to be a bottom dweller at the time, but he could’ve fostered an environment of going down fighting and growing as a team instead of allowing resentment to foster amongst the players.  Eventually, the players did put their differences aside, but only for one reason – they got sick and tired of playing for Eakins and stopped putting the effort in.

On December 15, 2014, the team got their wish, and Eakins was fired.  His replacement in the interim was farm team head coach Todd Nelson, who succeeded in healing the rifts between the players and brought them together as a team.  Although they would still finish out of the playoffs, they finished the season stronger under Nelson.

Once Bob Nicholson was brought in to oversee the team, he ended up demoting GM Mactavish and hiring Peter Chiarelli instead.  This was a move many fans and media applauded at the time as it was the first time seemingly since Glen Sather that a guy with no ties to the organization was hired on merit, rather than a former player simply assuming responsibilities like what had happened with Kevin Lowe and Mactavish.

Chiarelli subsequently made Nelson a victim of the GM Change and hired MacLellan as his coach, not bringing back Nelson in any capacity despite the fact the team finished the season better than it had started it.  Nelson is an assistant coach in Dallas right now.

Eakins went on to go back to being an AHL head coach for Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, in June 2015.  He remained in that post until June 2019 when Anaheim promoted him to head coach of the Ducks.

Anaheim at this point isn’t as much of a dumpster fire as the LA Kings are, but they still have a lot of the same problems – core players too old and on boat anchor contracts, and young players not yet ready to assume their minutes as they’re still developing.  However, the Ducks are doing better than the Kings are at this point in time and are best described as going through a retooling.

Right now the Ducks are sitting at .500 and sit 4th in the Honda West division.  Like a lot of teams in the NHL right now, the Ducks are in cap hell and are surviving off LTIR cap space via Ryan Kesler and Brendan Guhle – almost $7 million of cap space between the 2 players.  This is what allows them to be $4 million over the cap.

It’s worth watching Eakin’s press conference when he was hired by the Ducks in 2019.  It’s only about 20 minutes long, and in it, GM Bob Murray indicates he is familiar with Eakins and seems to have found a kindred spirit as Murray’s career as a GM was a lot like Eakin’s as a coach – he failed in Chicago before rebounding with Anaheim after he was given a chance at redemption.

Murray is thus giving Eakins his chance at redemption after the dumpster fire he was here.  Eakins is also asked about what he learned from his time here, and his answer is interesting and his actions speak even louder – we haven’t heard rumours that he’s micromanaging irrelevant details any more or that he’s trying to bring in his swarm defence again.

His roster in Anaheim isn’t as bad as his roster in Edmonton was, so that helps too.  Who knows?  If the Ducks can keep it up, they might even sneak into the playoffs as a wild card.  And after this year, after the horrendous contracts given out to Ryan Getzlaf and David Backes come off the books, the Ducks will be exiting cap hell which will certainly help.  So there ya have it.  2 ex-Oiler coaches that are still working in the NHL.