In June, the Edmonton Oilers hired Dallas Eakins, formerly the coach of the Maple Leafs in-town AHL farm team the Toronto Marlies, as head coach. While with the Marlies, Eakins earned a reputation as something of an innovator in the often-slow-to-change world of hockey coaching. He'd ice a power-play unit with five forwards in a sport where using four forwards on the power play is frequently considered risky, he'd pull his goalie when on a power play and down three goals with 10 minutes left in the game, he'd take his timeout early in the game instead of saving it to the end. These may seem like minor differences of strategy, but in the copycat world of professional sports, any deviation from the norm is phenomenal.
The Oilers have struggled this season, as they have in many recent seasons, and currently have the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst in the league. While stacked with dazzling young forwards like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, Nail Yakupov and others, they have had runs of bad defense.
How innovative has Eakins been given the circumstances? How much pressure is he under to succeed in the hockey-mad city of Edmonton, a city which remembers vividly the glory days when Wayne Gretzky led the team to five Stanley Cups in the 1980s?
PostSports: When Eakins was hired by the Oilers, there was a lot of talk about the outside-of-the-box tactics he used with the Marlies — the five-forward power play, liberal pulling of the goalie, swarm defense, not saving timeouts and so on. How much of that has he done this season? Those plays are perceived as "risky" in the conventional wisdom, so how much blowback has there been when it hasn't worked (for example, when the five-forward PP gave up the shorthanded goal to Chicago)? Are fans willing to be patient, especially given that the Oilers have struggled early on?
Dellow: The Oilers got away from the swarm defence pretty early in the season. They were experiencing difficulty with it that led to high quality chances for the opposition in the slot as the Oilers stormed towards the puck and abandoned the front of the net. See, for example, this.
The five man PP has been a bit more of a success, although the Edmonton media reacted to a shorthanded goal scored by Jonathan Toews against the Oilers five man PP unit as if it was the first shorthanded goal in history. It's a tough city in which to do anything unusual because anything unusual is met by a clucking of tongues from people who compare everything to the approach employed by the 1983-84 Oilers. That's the difficulty with doing something unusual in Edmonton - there's an audience of people who are aware of it and will bemoan the fact of it being different. It's harder for high profile teams to do these things, I think - in smaller markets, with less noise, a coach can innovate without having to answer for it for half an hour every day.
As far as the fanbase patience, it's a pretty weird thing. The fanbase has been extraordinarily patient and hopeful through a lot of pretty dire stuff that ought not to have inspired hope in anyone. The Oilers have a better management group than they did a year ago and the team has, to my eye, looked better but there seems to be less patience for their losses. That said, Edmonton is not unaccustomed to dealing with bad hockey teams and, although the playoffs are a pipe dream, a decent last sixty games that gives the team something to build on for next year will probably be enough to keep the pitchforks and torches stowed for another year.
PostSports: Eakins gave a quote when he was hired that alluded to his team learning multiple systems. He made a comparison between the NFL, in which teams have thousand-page playbooks players are expected to know, and the NHL, where a lot of teams run one kind of forecheck, one kind of power play and so on. Is that one-system mentality as widespread as he made it sound and have you seen any evidence that the Oilers are running multiple systems or that he's making on-the-fly tactical changes in the game?
Dellow: Eakins has shown a willingness to do different things tactically and experiment with things as the season's gone along. One interesting wrinkle at the moment is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing at the top of the first unit PP, with Taylor Hall high to this left, Nail Yakupov high on the right side, Jordan Eberle down low on the left and David Perron down low on the right. The Oilers have had quite a few different looks on the PP this year, something that's been a welcome change from a decade of painfully looking for a cross crease pass for a tap in. It's still unusual to see a centre running a PP from the top of the offensive zone and it's something to look out for. RNH tends to handle the puck, with Yakupov providing a constant threat of a quick one timer.
There's also reason to think that the Oilers started the season with a more aggressive system, pressuring teams all over the ice, before lapsing into a more passive approach after about seven games. They've been attacking more aggressively lately, something that's been reflected in their shot totals.
On the whole, it seems like Eakins has thrown more different looks on the ice than we've seen in the recent past. I'm sure he'd happily settle on one if it would result in winning some games.
PostSports:Outside of the tactics, have there been any drastic or even noticeable differences in the team (positive or negative)? Do you get the impression he's trying for a wholesale change for the Oilers and that it may take time to turn around the aircraft carrier? What's been the biggest change in his tenure from the regimes that preceded him (besides eliminating the doughnuts from the press room)?
Dellow: The biggest change has probably been the expectations. Eakins and Craig MacTavish invited higher expectations before the season and they've gone unmet. This may explain some of the rapidly dissipating patience in Edmonton with the organization. As far as what's on the ice, and again this is somewhat tactical, we've seen flashes of a far more aggressive Oilers team this year compared to last. It's not yet reflected in the numbers but the Eakins team has, at times, looked more aggressive than last year's bunch.
As far as the bad start goes and whether it takes time to turn an aircraft carrier around (or stuff the Titanic with enough ping pong balls to get it off the ocean floor), I'm not entirely sure that that's the case. There was a bit of a perfect storm around the Oilers early, with bad goaltending and shoddy defence. As an optimist, I expect the Oilers to take some serious strides this year. There were signs of this in games again Calgary, Florida and Columbus last week but then every winter has a chinook and the game against Chicago on Monday was poor.