Let's get this out of the way first thing: Cody Eakin is a polarizing figure among fans of the Dallas Stars. One narrative is that he's an earnest, hard-working player with great intentions constantly undermined by an inability to read the game. To that group he's not quite skilled enough for the top six, not quite smart enough for the bottom six. A true tweener. The other side of the argument also sees the hard work, points to growth across three seasons, and a handful of other omens that paint the young center as a valuable, if unconventionally so, part of the team's go-foward core.
The Stars themselves have weighed in. Just last month they inked the Ginga Ninja to a four year, $15.4 million extension. It's not elite money, but it isn't tweener money either. A cap hit of $3.85 million is very much a sign the team believes he'll have a role to play in the years to come. That role is one of the more interesting questions heading into training camp, and it's answer will go a long way in determining exactly what sort of team the Stars will be in 2015/2016.
Let's start with what the Stars bought. Last season continued a three year trend of improvement for Eakin. He registered more goals (19), assists (21), and points (40) than in any previous campaign. He was both trusted in the faceoff circle (1,292 total draws) and successful (50.8% won). Eakin also posted positive possession numbers (50.4 CF% EV and 51 FF% EV) despite being a defensive-skewing player (44.8 oZS% EV). Yes, at times he can look frantic and lost, but there's something to be said for raw hustle. Jamie Benn certainly benefited, as Eakin's scrambling goal in the dying moments of the season's final game handed our beloved captain his Art Ross trophy.
What the Stars did not buy was a elite offensive force. Forty points is a modest total in and of itself, but Eakin can also count himself a bit lucky in terms of goal-scoring (13.4 S%). That's a high versus last year (9.9%) and the year before (10.4%). Unless Eakin corrects a slight decrease in total shots (142 vs 161 the year before), or finds a way to stay lucky, it seems unlikely to count on continued offensive growth. The fact there will be more competition for minutes this season due to acquisitions and better health elsewhere on the roster will also hurt his chances.
There is also a very legitimate question about Eakin's role on the team. This time last summer we had him inked in as the leash-holder for Dallas' prized pitbulls. Alongside Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt, Eakin was going to make life miserable for Stars' opponents. It didn't work out. Furthermore, only a strong finishing kick pushed most of the metrics I mentioned above into positive territory. It was just an awkward, ill-fitting season for a player that never quite seemed to settle into a sustained role.
In a vacuum, the Stars would likely take 17 minutes of what Eakin gave them last season. The thing is, an increased cap hit is inevitably going to grow expectations. At $1.9 million, Eakin can bounce around the lineup, plug holes, and contribute generally. Increase that number threefold, and Eakin is going to have to get really good at something.
Getting over the 20-goal hump would be nice. To do so, he'll need to build on last seasons' 15 even strength tallies, or insert himself into a crowded power play. Alternatively, he could add another 4% on the faceoff dot, drop into the low 40s in terms of oZS%, and add the sort of positional nous that might make him a defensive force.
He doesn't get signed for four years if the Stars don't have at least some expectation of what's going to happen next. Don't forget, for the first time in his tenure as a Star, the only baggage Eakin will carry into training camp is his duffel (which contains a World Championship Gold Medal, FYI). No lockout, no holdout, no new coach. A lot of things have happened to put Eakin in a position to succeed. Now, will Eakin remain in that position, or will he go skating, helter-skelter, into a wall?