As the Dallas Stars and Jim Nill move forward in the search for a new coach, it seems the team could actually have a wide range of options to choose from, including several different coaches with differing approaches behind the bench. In 2011, the coaching search was likely limited by the budget that former GM Joe Nieuwendyk had to work with and as a consequence the options were also limited for that particular coaching search. Not so much this time around.
Nill is currently running the gamut in his coaching search and while some names have leaked (Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault) it's likely we won't know much about who he is interviewing before the actual hire is announced. As such, we can only guess as to who his top candidates are.
We'll be taking a look at a number of possible coaching candidates in the coming days, grouping them together as best we can into similar categories -- however arbitrary they may be. Today we take a look at two of the top options out of the AHL, Wilie Desjardins and Dallas Eakins.
Head Coach, Texas Stars, AHL (2012 - present)
Associate Head Coach, Dallas Stars, NHL (2010-2012)
Head Coach, General Manager, Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (2005-2010)
Head Coach, Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (2002-2005)
Desjardins is highly respected in the Dallas Stars organization and was a top candidate for the head coach position when Gulutzan was hired in 2011. An incredibly successful coach in the WHL for many years, Desjardins came to Dallas as a coach touted as someone who works extremely well with younger players as well as a coach able to really "teach" the game up and down the ice.
Becoming known as "Whiteboard Willie" in Dallas, Desjardins could always be seen as the coach behind the bench discussing late game strategies and plays that seemed to be more effective than most designed plays in hockey. Perhaps the most famous example of this came in November of 2011 when, down by a goal in the final minute of regulation, a set play worked to formation to tie the game against the Los Angeles Kings.
His role in Dallas as an assistant coach was wide-ranging, and he survived the change from Marc Crawford to Glen Gulutzan and helped provide experience for the young head coach in his first season in the NHL. Last summer, once the Texas Stars had fired head coach Jeff Pyle, Desjardins instantly became the top candidate to take his spot in the incredibly important role of leading the Stars' developmental team in the AHL.
The relationship between the Texas Stars and Dallas is perhaps one of the closer ones you'll see between an NHL and AHL team, and it had become clear just how important having good leadership for the team's AHL affiliate had become. Desjardins took his experience from the WHL and worked wonders in Cedar Park -- leading the Stars to the top spot in the Western Conference and a run to the second round of the playoffs.
While the second round exit was disappointing, it must not be overlooked just how much turnover existed for that team last season. I asked Stephen Meserve of Hunded Degree Hockey to give his thoughts on Desjardins' season with the Texas Stars:
The Stars almost got tired of talking about it this season, but it was a big talking point that Texas was really three different teams this season. During the NHL lockout, after the lockout and after the trade deadline, the lineups were not consistent across the entire year. The play, however, was. After an initial rough patch (3-6 to start the season), Willie Desjardins hockey kicked in.
Desjardins' team played hard all three periods in all three zones. A hallmark of the team, until the playoffs, was the ability to grind down teams in the third period. The club went 30-3-0-1 when leading after two periods and actually won more than they lost when allowing the first goal. The team wouldn't give up on themselves.
Additionally, Desjardins was not afraid to use ice time as a tool, no matter the name on the back of the jersey. Oleksiak and Morrow both reportedly were scratched due to their play at one point down the stretch. That sends a strong no nonsense message.
He plays it close to the vest in interviews and instills a strong sense of responsibility in his players. When guys come out to talk after a tough game, there is only 'we' and the talking points are always the same across players. They know exactly where they failed to execute the system and feel a respoinsibility to do better for each other.
Desjardins was named the AHL's Coach of the Year and many are worried he could be "poached" from the Stars organization for one of the vacant coaching positions in the NHL. The team's struggles in the second round were a bit concerning, however, and some have speculated that such a turn at the end of the season could have lowered his stock a bit.
It should be noted, however, that Texas was wracked with injuries against OKC and Desjardins was forced to make some tough decisions that looked very odd at the time. That said, he remains a top candidate for an NHL coach and there's a chance he's certainly near the top of the Nill's list for the open spot in Dallas. Will the Stars promote from their AHL affiliate once more?
Head Coach, Toronto Marlies, AHL (2009 - present)
Assistant Coach, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL (2006-2008)
Assistant Coach, Toronto Marlies, AHL (2005-2006)
Dallas Eakins has emerged as the top coaching candidate in the AHL this offseason, after four fairly successful seasons with the Toronto Marlies. Eakins has a lot of connections to the Vancouver Canucks and it seems he's the top option to take over the job vacated by Alain Vigneault, but one would hope that Nill would be doing the best he can to determine if Eakins is the top option for the Stars as well and whether he would be the best fit for an organization searching for consistency at the coaching position.
Eakins has been the head coach of the Toronto Marlies the past four seasons, and before that was an assistant with the Maple Leafs. Eakins is also notable for his extensive career as a professional hockey player, playing from 1988 to 2004 before retiring as a leader with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
A hard-nosed defensive-defenseman, Eakins was a player without the best skill but who knew just how much work it took to be successful in hockey. A fitness guru who is still in incredible shape, Eakins preaches that hockey is more than just what happens on the ice and ensures that his teams have the absolute best conditioning and preparation for the game.
Perhaps his biggest success as a coach thus far has been his role is developing several young players for the Maple Leafs; much of the success in Toronto this season has been attributed to the coaching by Eakins at the AHL level. He understands the importance of defense and goaltending and coaches his team "from the goal out," while hounding the basic fundamentals of hockey that so many teams at this level seem to overlook.
Jeff Angus has an incredibly detailed profile of Eakins up at Canucks Army, and I don't want to steal everything he's unearthed there about the Marlies head coach. Talking to several journalists who extensively covered the Marlies this season, Angus profiles a coach that perhaps embodies the exact sort of coach the Dallas Stars need at this stage of the team's rebuilding phase...
Here are some highlights:
He appreciates the fundamentals of the game. Let's remember, this is the man who was charged with the task of developing top Leafs talents like Nazem Kadri in all three zones. One of my favourite lines which Eakins would repeat almost nightly in his first two seasons was that keeping a goal out of your own net was as important to the outcome as scoring a goal. The mantra has caught on, as the Marlies have become one of the league's top penalty killing clubs for three straight seasons - an influence which has worked its way up to the Maple Leafs.
Eakins believes in a strong forecheck and plenty of offensive contribution from his blue line. He believes in mental toughness, and constant pressure - regardless of the score.
The coach brought his team to the Calder Cup last season and finished the 2012-13 campaign second in the conference despite losing six of their top scorers and his top-two defenceman to the return of the NHL. Statistics will show the Toronto Marlies have struggled year after year on the powerplay, though.
Outside of the weight room, Eakins has also been known to challenge his players to improve their everyday life. Invitations to join the coach in mini-challenges targeted at daily intake and consumption have appeared on several occasions - the coach then offering to reward players with a dinner after their successful completion.
Dallas has been able to dig deep into his well of experience to motivate players at the AHL level. Having spent most of his career bouncing between both the big club and the affiliate, he knows what it means to achieve goals which in turn help to steal a spot up top. At the same time he can relate to being sent down and pushing himself to fight off disappointment and still perform at a high level.
There's a lot more where that came from, so be sure to check out the full profile.
The basics are this: Eakins is a "player's coach" who works to forge a strong relationship with his players and his team while also demanding the highest level of effort and hard work once the team hits the ice. He challenges his teams on and off the ice and he's shown an ability to get the best out of young players that are just breaking into the AHL and the NHL.While the Stars certainly have a number of veterans on the team, this is certainly going to be a younger and younger team at the NHL level moving forward as the prospects move up to Dallas.
One thing is for certain, Eakins seems to have found that balance between being a "player's coach" and the hard-nosed approach that so many coaches need to be successful at the NHL level. Eakins preaches accountability and hard work and a balanced approach on and off the ice, qualities that Jim Nill has spoken of endlessly since he was hired as General Manager.
The Stars are moving on from a coach recently hired straight out of the AHL and it's a thought that perhaps the team would want a more NHL experienced coach moving forward. As much as Gulutzan was touted as a coach able to "grow with the team," Eakins or Desjardins certainly stand out as candidates to fill that role perhaps better than Gulutzan was able to. There's not doubt that there will be some adjustments for any coach moving up to the NHL, but both Desjardins and Eakins seem poised to make the transition a bit easier than Gulutzan was able to the past two seasons.