When an NHL organization signs a player to a big contract extension it is a clear sign that the team has placed a lot of trust into that person.
How that player responds to the placement of trust, however, is an entirely different story.
When the Dallas Stars signed Cody Eakin to a four-year, $15.4 million contract extension this past summer it was a telling sign that the team had a lot of faith in the 24 year-old center.
"Cody is a well-rounded player and has the versatility to play in a number of roles," general manager Jim Nill said at the time. "He has the ability to shut down opponent's top players, win faceoffs and kill penalties, all while producing offensively. Cody has been an important part of our team and will continue to be a part of our core for the next five seasons."
The decision certainly made sense from Nill's standpoint. Despite still being in his early 20s, Eakin had been showing plenty of promise at the NHL level. The Stars were asking a lot out of Eakin by tasking him with heavy defensive zone starts, difficult match-ups, and lots of time on the penalty kill, but, overall, he managed to keep his head above water in a very demanding role. Even more impressive, he still managed to put up a solid 40 points in 78 games in 2014-15, which was good for fourth among Stars forwards.
If Eakin can be that kind of versatile player at 24, Nill's thinking surely went, then he could really be something special by the time he's 27 or 28. So, the purse strings were opened and Eakin was extended early, even though he was still under contract for the 2015-16 season. Much like the brilliant John Klingberg contract, which pays the silky young defender a cap hit of only $4.25 million all the way until the end of 2022, the plan was to sign Eakin early and cheap before he really reached his ceiling.
Fast forward to January of 2016, though, and there is now a lot of doubt going around about just how high that ceiling goes.
Eakin has struggled quite a bit throughout much of this season thus far. Despite the same sorts of usage as the past two years Eakin's play has gone in reverse in seemingly every area.
Judging by these numbers, it's pretty safe to say that Eakin is currently a step below where he's been the last two seasons. Essentially, his usage has softened up a bit, but his overall results have still gotten worse.
The eyeball test hasn't been any kinder than the analytical one, as watching Eakin on the ice has been outright painful at times. There have just been far too many notable instances of him missing his coverage, making a bad decision with the puck, or being a second behind the play.
Exacerbating matters, the Stars have also seen the emergence of two rookie centers, Mattias Janmark and Radek Faksa, who have both looked fantastic this year for Dallas. With Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza locked up long term, that leaves three players that are now firmly jockeying for the third line center position with the Stars.
So, what does Dallas do now? Should the Stars try to trade Eakin since he's struggling and there are two others that could conceivably jump in and take his role?
Well...it's a little more complicated than that.
As mentioned already, Eakin is just 24 years old. Even though he has 285 NHL games under his belt already, he's still growing and developing as a hockey player. And, like all players his age, it's not at all uncommon to see them hit a speed bump in their careers, even one that lasts an entire season.
Any down year for a young player is always a cause for concern, of course, but it always needs to be analyzed alongside their other years. In Eakin's case specifically, even though he's struggling right now, his two strong previous seasons are positive signs that he can become a very effective player once he's fully developed in a few years' time.
Why is Eakin slumping so much this season compared to last? Is it a nagging injury? Personal issues off the ice? At this point there doesn't seem to be any clear answer to a distanced observer, but the Stars have to be hoping that whatever the problem is, that it's a temporary occurrence.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, is that the Stars might need to keep Eakin around because they're already going to see a lot of other changes in their forward ranks in the near future. The Stars have six forwards that are set to become free agents over the next two seasons (seven if you count Jamie Benn not signing a contract extension of his own, but let's just not do that). That's a heck of a lot of roster turnover.
Nill has spoken in the past about the need to let things "settle in" and it's not hard to understand why. Change too many players in too short of a time frame and it could have negative repercussions on the cohesion of your group as a whole. Does it make sense to trade Eakin if the Stars already might need to bring in other free agent forwards?
While the emergence of Janmark and Faksa (and Devin Shore and Jason Dickinson waiting in the wings) might seem to make Eakin expendable, there's certainly going to be more than enough room on the roster. It's always easier to move a center over to the wing than the other way around, and having plenty of center depth is never a bad thing.
Now, if Eakin is an essential piece required in a trade to pick up, let's say, a big, shutdown defenseman, then that's definitely something that should be looked into. But making a trade for the sake of making a trade could mean selling low on a player that has yet to reach his full potential.
This, of course, is all still entirely dependent on what Eakin's full potential actually is. Is it closer to the persistent buzzsaw that earned glamour for successfully going head-to-head against players like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, or is it the oft error-prone player that's been seen for most of this season?
The Stars, as a team, are still growing. They're learning the unique daily challenges of being one of the NHL's top teams, of being the hunted instead of the hunter. Each player's role becomes more difficult, but some more than others. Eakin, as evidenced by his usage and big new contract, is one of those trusted players. How well he lives up to that trust could go a long way in determining just how far as a team the Stars are able to climb.