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Analyzing Cody Eakin As A #1 Center

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Cody Eakin’s 2016-2017 season has been a disaster, but Lindy Ruff seems invested in getting him going.

NHL: Dallas Stars at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tough season for Cody Eakin, to quote captain obvious. But let’s start with the basics. He has more penalty minutes (33) than games (30). He has as many primary assists as Patrik Nemeth (2) despite quality time with Jamie Benn (151 minutes), Tyler Seguin (73 minutes), and Patrick Eaves (158). And he has the same amount of points as Julius Honka, Dallas’ rookie defenseman who has played in just ten games.

To a lot of fans the only distinction he really has this season is being punched in the face with his own helmet.

But not so fast.

Lindy Ruff has trusted Eakin with plenty of playing time with the league’s premiere players despite being unable to produce. Is this a blind spot of his, or does he know something fans calling for Eakin to be traded and demoted don’t?

As it turns out, there’s at least a little justification. Compliments of datarink, below are Jamie Benn’s Corsi for numbers at even strength, his Corsi against, and Corsi percentage when he’s with Eakin and Seguin (green), Eakin and Eaves (orange), and Eaves and Seguin (blue)*.

Ruff’s kind of justified?

When Benn is with Eakin and Eaves, his shot attempts for per 60 minutes (top right) of play is at its highest, and by a significant margin. If there’s logic to pairing Eakin with Benn, it does indeed exist. They generate more chances for compared to whenever Benn is on ice with any other trio he’s been a part of.

Even if Eakin isn’t producing, he is helping drive play in the offensive zone.

But. You may have noticed that the differential bar remains lower than either of the other two lines Benn has spent time with. And that’s because while Eakin seems to help Benn generate offensive zone possession, they give up more chances when together, and by a very significant margin.

Center is coveted as the “cerebral” forward role. The best centers in the game are valued because of their defensive responsibility (Kopitar, Toews, Crosby, Bergeron, etc). But they accomplish their defensive tasks through economy. Not sheer propulsion. Here, Eakin sees Dan Hamhuis taking his man. No harm, no foul. Centers are creatures of support rather than pursuit.

However, rather than support Hamhuis, he tries to assume Hamhuis’ role, doubling up on a Jet forward already covered. This allows Winnipeg to exploit Eakin’s overpursuit, who makes a clean pass to the now wide open middle of the ice.

Winnipeg counters easily, taking the middle of the ice now given to them, which practically allows them to enter the zone with a flying V.

To make matters worse, Eakin backs off, ending up past the blueline somehow. This play turned into a prime scoring chance for Winnipeg, requiring Kari Lehtonen to make a tough save in what ended up being a high danger area.

Eakin has been working harder, but not smarter — an element of Eakin’s game that has been present for several seasons.

Ruff said in his postgame interview that Benn’s uptick in production was connected to Eakin. “If you look at the past 7 or 10 games, since the Eakin line was put together his game’s been good.”

Benn was put together with Eakin and Eaves on January 17th. Benn has 10 points during that time span. However, only four of those points were at even strength. The rest were on the power play, which Eakin has nothing to do with. Nor, as it turns out, much of Benn’s even strength production either. Eakin has two points in that time span and they were all in the same game (against the New York Rangers).

Coaching decisions don’t exist in a vacuum though. Jim Nill gave Eakin a pretty juicy $3.8M contract through 2020. Whether consciously or not, coaches sometimes see these as validations. Granted, this doesn’t explain why Eakin was getting more playing time than Jason Spezza before his injury, but still.

It’s possible that Ruff sees Eakin through cost benefit goggles. Benn may give up more chances with Eakin than without, but if Benn generates more chances with Eakin than without, then it’s really just a difference of philosophy rather than analytics. Right?

Except Dallas has three centers with better shot attempt differential numbers than Eakin (Faksa, Spezza, and Seguin). Four if you include Benn himself, who has a better faceoff percentage than Eakin (as do Spezza and Seguin). And all of this is further outweighed by the fact that Eakin has failed to produce any measure of offense.

There are rarely easy answers to fixing a struggling team. Too many elements converge for there to be one cause. Eakin has nothing to do with the erratic goaltending, the transition-anemic blueline, the injuries, or the special teams schemes that Dallas’ coaches have failed to utilize.

But a lot of players have had difficulty getting the chance to ‘play through their struggles’. Julius Honka earned himself house arrest for his turnover against Toronto. Stephen Johns took a chicken finger break in the press box for a delay of game penalty. Jiri Hudler has been given no quarter despite potentially carrying the Andromeda Strain.

Eakin has less points than everyone mentioned above, and is guilty of this season’s biggest gaffe, running (and injuring) goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. When inconsistency is the only thing that characterizes a team, sometimes the best medicine is to start finding consistency in small places, like holding everyone accountable in equal measure. Is that the case with Eakin? Seguin, Spezza, Faksa, Shore, and part-time centerman Adam Cracknell are all outproducing Cody, and none of them get to be the former Art Ross winner’s lucky rabbits foot. You tell me.

*Don’t @ me color nerds and hipster synthesthetes.