His cellphone rang as he was driving around downtown San Diego.
Dallas Eakins receives calls regularly from Ducks general manager Bob Murray, but this time it wasn’t about organizational depth charts or injury updates. More than 70 days after the Ducks season ended, Murray told Eakins he was officially the next coach of the franchise.
“I was certainly hoping it was me,” said Eakins, who was given a three-year contract. “When the call came, I was ecstatic and very humbled, because I know how hard it is to get to this level, and to be afforded a second chance by Bob Murray certainly is not lost on me.”
The Ducks are banking that the second act of Eakins’ NHL coaching career follows the recent trend of coaches who have found success their second time around. The Stanley Cup Final featured two such coaches in Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues and Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins, who learned from modest experiences in their first NHL jobs and rebuilt their careers.
Eakins hopes to do that following a rocky stint with the Edmonton Oilers that was followed by a fruitful four-year run with the Ducks’ minor league affiliate San Diego.
Eakins learned the hard way in Edmonton. He went about changing the culture in a short time and it backfired with his firing after a 36-63-14 record.
“It was a challenging position and a challenging time for an organization,” Eakins said. “I think the biggest thing that it taught me was to keep my head down and to keep working, try and get better every day. It’s kind of like being in a fight. Keep your head down and keep swinging.”
Among the immediate challenges for Eakins is to imprint a profile on a team of established players with past success and younger ones needing direction. Ryan Getzlaf heads the former but the Ducks can no longer look to Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler as part of that foundation. Murray hasn’t been happy with the leadership and he touched on it again Monday.
“We have some vets here who are going to have to change some things,” Murray said. “That’s part of this new identity. They’re either going to change some things, or they’re not going to be part of this going forward.”
Eakins has a leg up this time around because he’s so familiar with the organization, as opposed to starting from scratch in Edmonton. He’s overseen the team’s prospects and developed relationships with them.
“We heard a lot of good things from the young guys coming up, and [there were a] few moments we had during training camp where you got a really good feeling about him,” defenseman Hampus Lindholm said. “I’m excited to see what this can bring to the team. He’s got that new style of coaching and, having a young team, I think that’s really going to help us a lot.”
Eakins understands Murray’s directive to play hard. That is driven home by the success of the Blues, Bruins and Washington Capitals, teams that play a more grinding style that contrasts with the rest of the fast-paced NHL. The Ducks can’t play an east-west style in a north-south league, but they can take a cue from the aforementioned teams.
“Work harder and [be] much more on the puck,” Murray said. “We’ll get them playing fast the right way, and that creates excitement.”
Murray interviewed several other candidates but said it always came back to Eakins. During the past season, Murray said he ran “tests” with Eakins in which he would ask him to break down certain games, and Eakins “always had definitive good answers.”
Said Eakins, “I think my interview has been going on for four years.”
A journeyman defenseman for 16 years who spent countless hours riding buses to play in relative obscurity, Eakins, 52, repeatedly said he’s humbled by his hiring. His second coaching job coincides with the Ducks’ new Great Park Ice facility in Irvine. The building is new, but the feeling is natural.
“I get to start with experience,” he said. “I feel like I’ve already hit the ground running in that aspect. A lot of players are going to understand the expectation and the values that we want to play with and live our lives by.
“I already know a number of the players here very, very well. I understand how they work, what they value, what their expectations are. And now it’s just getting our group together and really asking the question, ‘Who are we and what is this team going to look like when it comes from a cultural standpoint?’ ”
Eakins said his assistant staff will be decided in the coming days.