In researching this column, I talked to a number of people who have seen Cody Eakin play hockey at different levels – the WHL, the AHL, and the NHL. It is quite common for different people to have different opinions on the same player, but with Eakin, the reports I received were all pretty much the same.
He is an incredibly hard worker and a very smart hockey player. And having seen him play at all three levels, I would have to concur. Eakin won’t stand out because of his impressive size or skill. In the WHL, he was a top line scorer, but even then he was known more for his tenacity and incredible work ethic than his shot or stick handling ability.
Eakin was an integral part of the Kootenay Ice team that captured the WHL Championship, qualifying for the Memorial Cup (the CHL’s version of the Stanley Cup) in 2010-11. Eakin spent parts of five seasons with the Swift Current Broncos before a mid season trade to the Ice in his final year of WHL eligibility (Kootenay really, really wanted him – they sent five players and three draft picks to Swift Current). He teamed up in Kootenay with fellow Stars prospect Matt Fraser to lead the Ice attack, recording 44 points in 26 regular season games, and another 27 points in 19 postseason games.
He has likely been someone the Stars have had their eye on for a while now. Owner Tom Gaglardi owns the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers and he got to see a lot of Eakin during his time with Swift Current and Kootenay.
I compare Eakin to Zach Parise in terms of playing style. He doesn’t have Parise’s high-end skill, but both of them are very good hockey players who are forechecking demons and fearless on the ice. Hershey coach Mark French agrees.
"I think that’s what sets him apart from some other players. He obviously has a certain skill level that allows him to be a good offensive talent. But he also has that fiery competitive level that makes him very strong in all three zones."
Eakin shows off his shot in his first multi-goal game with Hershey:
Last season was his first as a professional. He played 30 games in the NHL, scoring four goals with Washington. In 43 games in the AHL with Hershey, he scored 13 goals and added 14 assists. Washington liked Eakin (their 3rd round pick from 2008), but he was stuck behind a number of players on the depth chart, and he didn’t fill an immediate need for their roster.
Dallas was looking to shake things up after consecutive late-season collapses. They moved out a significant part of their leadership group with the Ribeiro and Steve Ott trades. Ribeiro fills a need for Washington, as the club had been in search of a legitimate second line center for the last five or six seasons. And in Dallas, Ribeiro was not a part of the future.
To provide a comprehensive profile on Eakin, I interviewed three people: Greg Manning, who runs this Hershey Bears blog, Cody Nickolet (@WHLFromAbove), who saw Eakin play in the WHL, and Jon Press, who runs the popular Washington Capitals blog Japers’ Rink.
Angus: What is Eakin's Upside?
Nickolet: I think he has top six upside. But the best part about Eakin is how well-rounded he is. So, if his offensive game never truly rounds into form, he is still a solid enough player to be counted on as a third line glue-guy who will be great on a penalty kill and in other key situations during a game. That's not to say I doubt his offensive ability, I just think he's a valuable player if he never hits his full offensive potential.
Press: He's a speedy guy with a decent shot, but seemed to like the perimeter in his limited time in Washington. I think his upside is probably third-line energy type, but he's not big enough to bang much, so he'll have to score a bit to stay relevant. Should be interesting to watch him develop.
Manning: A future team leader. Not so much in a way that he gives speeches or is a emotional player on the ice like Ovechkin, but more of a "I am going to out-work everyone" kind of player. He never took a night off and always gave it his all. I think he could be a Brooks Laich kind of player. Based on his time in Hershey I would say he needed to bulk up a bit to be able to handle the daily grind of the NHL and to learn to be comfortable within his role.
Was the move to Dallas good for his career?
Nickolet: I think the move to Dallas is great for him. With Washington, he was definitely buried behind a ton of offensive contributors including Ovechkin, Backstrom and even guys like Johansson and Perreault. In Dallas, he can be counted on right off the bat as a sure-fire top nine guy and will get to play a bigger role on a younger squad. The move will also help Eakin just because of the roster the Stars currently have. Having veteran players to learn from every day like Whitney, Jagr and Morrow can be crucial for a young player just learning to find his way in the NHL. Not only are they former offensive stars, they are guys that have had to learn to adapt and adjust their game after playing over a decade in the game.
What stood out for you during Eakin's time in Hershey?
Manning: Eakin always struck me as a guy who never took a shift off and always tried his best. Obviously there was a learning curve but he was generally one of the best players on the ice in Hershey during his time there. He did everything from killing penalties to centering the top power play unit. He wasn't the best player in any one part of the game, but he was one of the best at everything.
Who would you compare him to?
Nickolet: Comparisons can be a tricky thing. Everyone looks at them in a different way. For me, when I compare a prospect to an NHL player I look at it in two ways. First, who does the player actually resemble on the ice, in regards to style of play? Second, who does he compare to in terms of potential production? When thinking about comparables for Eakin, I would say Chris Kunitz isn't far off. He's not the biggest guy, but he works hard, can play physical, can score and is also solid defensively.
Kunitz is another really good comparison. He doesn’t stand out with any single attribute, but he’s a very valuable and versatile player capable of contributing in many different ways.
What developments in his game allowed him to become one of the best WHL players by his final year in the league?
Nickolet: I think the biggest area he improved was just his ability to round out his game. He didn't sit back on his past successes in the league. He took his experience and used it to his advantage. is decision making with and without the puck was off the charts. He never tried to play too complicated. He was smart, simple and effective It allowed him to set new career highs in points per game in the league and allowed him to truly be a top end player in the WHL, setting the table for his pro career. The other thing that really helped him was his size and strength, which clearly improved heading into his final season. He was stronger than ever before and was then able to win more battles in every situation he was put in.
What were your initial thoughts on the trade?
Press: I liked the trade at the time because it addressed the most gaping hole in the Caps' roster, and a persistent one at that. I'm not the biggest Ribeiro fan, but scoring-line centers aren't often available at [that] price, so you take what you can get and hope for the best. As to Eakin, I think the Caps may have waited a little too long to move him in terms of maximizing his value and the return on it, but they'd probably tried to move him sooner, to no avail. And obviously if the season gets wiped out and the Caps traded Ribeiro (a UFA-to-be) for nothing, I don't like the trade any more.
Was Eakin in the long term future for the Caps? Or a victim of the depth chart?
Press: Hard to say on Eakin. I think they'd have had a better idea about that within a year or two, but had an opportunity to address a need, so they went for it. Definitely more of a "win now" move than a lot of the moves they've made in recent years - George McPhee doesn't often trade players with real upside remaining (Eakin and Varlamov are two recent counter-examples.
Eakin could develop into a very good second line center. Or he could top out as a solid energy line center or winger. It depends on who you ask. His work ethic, instincts, and ability to process the game quickly are all unquestioned. However, it is still unknown whether or not he will be able to translate his offensive successes in junior to the NHL. One thing is for certain – he has a much better opportunity of doing just that in Dallas than he did in Washington.