Cody Eakin is a Role Player in Need of a Role for the Dallas Stars
Cody Eakin has had the benefit of the doubt from the Dallas Stars organization. The provocative question is, does he deserve it?
Authority isn't earned by ink, or lanyards. It's earned by the process of communication. Not the dictate of it. There's a particularly amusing example of this going on in Montreal. Thanks to a particular trade you may have heard about. When pressed to answer 'why' questions, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin appears content with saying "trust us, we're the authorities". Except Peter Chiarelli was an authority. Should Boston have trusted his authority when he traded Tyler Seguin? This Flyer scout is an authority. Should Philly trust his authority to scout the team effectively when he chooses one player over another because he "has more meanness" and "will whack you with his (bleeping) stick and give you that stuff"?
Having the authority to command something doesn't justify the command in and of itself. And when it comes to Ruff's command to play Cody Eakin at 1C, I believe Ruff is making a mistake.
First off, I think Ruff's a good coach. His process of coaching is one I believe plays to the strengths of the group (creativity through all three zones, and pressure with possession). And that process has helped create an elite possession team that doesn't owe its strengths to just personnel. Were that the case, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon wouldn't be disasters of shot differential under Roy. But like any process, mistakes occur.
Eakin is a good player. This piece isn't an argument against Eakin's value. It's an argument against his role. In the 2013-2014 season, Eakin logged prime minutes against tough competition with Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt. They were, against all odds, successful. They maintained good possession numbers in a difficult role. Which is all you can really ask of your checking line. Eakin managed to tally 35 points that season. Not bad.
However, it became clear in the following season that Eakin and the gang couldn't be trusted to play the role any longer. Eakin wasn't a bad possession player, but as a trio, their expected goal differential was 5th worst on the team among line combos with at least 70 minutes of icetime together. The 2015-2016 season would see a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Ryan Garbutt later going to Anaheim and Daley later going to Pittsburgh to help them win a cup for Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns. This allowed Ruff to try something new. Eakin bounced around a lot and as his role became less defined, so did his game. And this is the end result:
Looking at numbers can feel so abstract, and yet it's clear as day that you're not looking at just numbers here. That's a pattern. Not only do players generate more offense without Eakin than with him, but there's a slight increase in suppressing offense.
Dallas also quickly filled up the checking line center role early on. Forget about Radek Faksa. His value is glaringly obvious. Le'ts look at Janmark:
Yes, Janmark benefited from playing over 400 minutes with Jason Spezza at even strength. But Eakin had over 300 minutes with Patrick Sharp, and almost 300 minutes with Jamie Benn. They also both centered a line with Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky with at least 70 minutes of TOI together. Janmark's was better (by five whole percentage points).
Yet Eakin's role didn't diminish (he played the second most ice time in the playoffs of all forwards). Well before Seguin went down, Eakin earned ice time with Jamie Benn (presumably because they do indeed have chemistry when short handed). And the line to put Eakin at 1C seems to be about "defensive responsibility". Which just prompts me to replay Moneyball in my head. 'If he's a good hitter why doesn't he hit good?' If Eakin is good defensively then why don't his teammates play better defensively when he's on the ice?
I can't speak to Ruff's actual justification. Was it a matter of "hiding" Eakin, allowing the blooming Fak 'Em line room to do their thing? There's clearly merit to this. Eakin ended up with 8 points in 13 playoff games while Faksa and the gang did what checking lines do. But those points weren't the product of the type of playmaking, vision, or IQ a line with Benn needs. This became increasingly clear as the competition improved in the playoffs.
Faksa and Janmark have shown themselves to be capable checking line centers (with centers like Dickinson, Shore, and Hintz on the way). Spezza and Seguin are extraordinary top six centers. Where does that leave Eakin?
Eakin may have earned the benefit of the doubt two season ago. But since then his possession numbers have dipped along with his point totals. Sure, having a defined role will help. But the truly versatile players are able to carve their identities themselves. Hopefully Eakin can make that happen. And hopefully Ruff can manage his play when or if he does now that some of Dallas' rookies have defined their own roles with two way games Eakin must now match.