A contract dispute is an awful way to start a season. It creates a gap, a fissure in the lineup. At a time when both the player and his team should be preparing for a season, neither can settle. Think about a crack in a windshield. Sure, there's a hole, but there are also little spider-web cracks working their way out from the center. This season, that crack was Cody Eakin.
After two seasons with the Stars, Eakin's rookie deal had run its course and left him a restricted free agent. He'd also been left at something of a crossroads. When he was acquired from the Washington Capitals, the speedy center was looked at as someone with undefined potential. A third round pick, Eakin had finished better than a point per game in each of his final two WHL seasons. The highlight of which was a 56 game, 83 point eruption with Swift Current and Kootenay that earned him a turn with Canada at the World Junior Championships.
Then came 2012/2013, and decidedly mixed fortunes for Eakin. The good was 30 games in the show. The bad was a paltry four goals and four assists during that stretch. That same year he would play 48 games with Hershey in the AHL where things were better, but 27 points was still a far shout from his days in Junior hockey. This was not the second line center Washington felt they needed to compete.
Enter the struggling Stars, who swapped Mike Ribeiro for Eakin and a second round pick. At the time, it felt like a "why not" sort of move. The mercurial Ribeiro seemed listless in Dallas, was not a part of the long term plan, and the Stars weren't exactly banging on Lord Stanley's door. The Capitals, meanwhile, perceived themselves to be among the league's elite, lacking only secondary scoring to compliment Alexander Ovechkin and friends. Looking back, the move might have been a touch impatient for the Caps, but I remember thinking it made a ton of sense for both parties at the time.
Not that the Stars had a chance to play with their new toy. Bettman's third lockout followed, which left Eakin in Cedar Park. There, he was a big part of a very good Texas Stars team. In 35 games he produced an even 12 goals and 12 assists. When the NHL season finally started, Eakin showed definite flashes. He produced 24 points in 48 games. The next season, his first full year with Dallas, nudged all of those numbers slightly northwards (81 GP / 35 Pts).
A funny thing happened, though. Eakin's point totals did not exactly light the world on fire, but those modest improvements were enhanced by a developing defensive game. Eakin was 22 years old at the time, and already third among Stars forwards in terms of defensive zone starts (50.44 DZS%). That season, he'd also won more faceoffs (581) than any other Star (Vernon Fiddler was second with 506 for those of you scoring at home). No, 2013/2014 Cody Eakin wasn't reminding anyone of Mike Ribeiro's creativity, but he was tilting play the right direction (51.75 CF%). Eakin's undefined ceiling was frustrating, sure, but all of the sudden his floor was as a superb two-way center capable of playing meaningful minutes (17:08 ATOI).
All of which brings us back to Eakin's contract dispute. Here was a 23-year old forward with good wheels, a willingness to commit on defense, and an offensive game that, while modest, had done nothing but improve. Sure, the Stars weren't exactly sure how they were going to need Eakin quite yet, but it was clear he'd have a role to play in the coming season. Training camp should have been an excellent opportunity to figure things out, but both parties were instead left to wait.
The Dallas Stars announced Cody Eakin had re-signed on September 29, 2014, a mere 10 days before the start of the season. Yes, he'd made it back in time for the season-opener, but with such a short runway, so many new additions, and so much pressure, how long was Eakin going to need to get up to speed?
One game, apparently. After missing most of his pre-season Eakin played more than 18 minutes, won 14 of 25 faceoffs, and scored a goal. Among all Stars forwards, Eakin saw the fourth most time on ice. He played on the power play (2:54) and he played short-handed (3:24). Sixty-nine games later, Eakin is still fourth amongst Stars forwards in ice time (just behind Jason Spezza), sitting on a career-high in goals, and playing just about everywhere. He's also going to beat last season's point total (he would need two points from his final eight games).
Cody Eakin is an all-situation player, an all-roster player. From first line winger to third line center and every spot in between, Eakin slots seamlessly into whatever role he's asked to play. One could also make the case that he's only scratching the surface. 2014/2015 will be only Eakin's second full season in the league. Doesn't that explain some of the raw edges in his game? It's time to stop talking about Cody Eakin as someone that could be a tremendous player. He's there. From here it's just a question of how tremendous.