Trying Radek Faksa at Center with Jamie Benn Instead of Cody Eakin is Not Crazy
Cody Eakin struggled during the regular season. He's doing okay with Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp, but might Radek Faksa be even better?
On what basis can I make the claim that Cody Eakin doesn't belong next to Jamie Benn? Am I a former hockey player? No. My knowledge of hockey comes from a bunch of annoying kids being coached by Emilio Estevez. Have I ever played the game? Not unless playing in the parking lot with roller blades and Primus count.
In other words, I'm no expert. I'm just your average hockey fan who wants to understand the game I love.
But a critical eye doesn't need a license. And a coach need not be bulletproof when it comes to decision making. I think Lindy Ruff is a fantastic coach, personally. Good coaches tend to fall into two categories: those who develop and nourish a system, and those who develop and nourish creativity.
Ruff falls into the latter category with aplomb. And he's done so while embracing a youth movement many thought he'd be combative with. Radek Faksa, Stephen Johns, Mattias Janmark, and John Klingberg have all shown enough talent to deserve playing time, and more than playing time, they've been handed the reigns to specific, important roles just as quickly as they've entered the league.
However, when it comes to Cody Eakin, he has a blind spot in my opinion.
In the regular season Cody Eakin was the worst possession player among forwards with over 200 minutes of ice time at even strength. He was also dead last on the team in Fenwick, which approximates scoring chances. To a man, the team generates more shot attempts and suppresses more shot attempts without Cody Eakin than with him.
High and to the right (hence the handy legend tagged "good") is where you want to be. Low and to the left is not. And that's what is happening when Cody Eakin is on the ice.
He's actually been better in the playoffs, where he's 10th on the team in his CF Percentage. But perhaps that's because he's playing next to Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp. The issue with Eakin has always been that he's a good player that is miscast. As a defensive linchpin, he doesn't have the instincts. As offensive support, he doesn't have the vision (remember the 2 on 1 with Johnny Oduya he had that he shot into the player's shinpads practically at the blueline?).
The first potential counterargument is that the Jamie Benn-Cody Eakin-Patrick Sharp trio has been good. After all, good things are happening. This is actually true. As a trio, their shot attempt differential is 59 Percent. That's good for 5th in the entire NHL among trios with at least 40 minutes of ice time together at even strength per Corsica Hockey. Wanna guess who sits at 1st? The Fak'Em line (at 64 Percent!).
But the line is generating offense on the basis of Benn and Sharp. I went back and looked at each of Eakin's four assists. Here's assist #1:
Credit to Eakin, but this isn't a brilliant cycle in the opponent's zone. Or a great no look pass behind the net. It's Minnesota completely blowing their offensive zone coverage. Good job by Eakin, but what player can't make this pass? Here's Assist #2:
Eakin once again goes for the bank. Sharp doesn't actually see the pass at first. He has to turn his head to find it. But again this is just bad coverage on Minnesota's part. Is there a method to Eakin's madness? Sure. But there's a difference between getting opportunities and being actively opportunistic. Kind of like assist #3:
This is Eakin winning the faceoff cleanly (credit to Cody) and Goligoski firing a puck at the net which goes in thanks to bouncing off Scandella. His 4th assist comes off a play looking eerily similar to some of his other assists.
Eakin chips it to a wide open Sharp up the middle who gets a two on one thanks to Benn splitting the pinching defensemen.
To be sure, this feels vaguely like an "elbows too pointy" level criticism. He's getting points, and putting up good possession numbers. Why single him out?
Two words: Radek Faksa.
I know. He's part of a line that has absolutely dominated in the playoffs with Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky. What good could possibly come of breaking up something so efficient?
One of the reasons why quality of competition tends to be overstated is that the gap between said quality over the course of a season is small. All teams play an equal amount of road versus home games, and thus favor line matchups with equal economy. In other words, why not try Faksa with Benn during away games when you can't control where the Fak 'Em line goes?
Yes it's an experiment. But it's no less an experiment than when Radek Faksa was tried with Ales Hemsky and Antoine Roussel and look at how that turned out? In addition, Faksa's production projects to do well, and that's despite a lot of playing time with a bunch of 4th liners and some rookies versus Eakin, who gets ice time with veterans and super stars:
So who takes Faksa's place?
Funny you should ask. Maybe the guy who used to run his spot in the first place?
Believe it or not there were two line combos within the "checking line" that had better shot attempt differentials than the Fak 'Em line, who spent 123 minutes together during the regular season. They were Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky with Mattias Janmark (61 Percent together). And Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky with...yes, Cody Eakin (at 56 Percent). In addition, all lines spent plenty of time together so it's not exactly a small sample size.
The Dallas Stars will be playing the St. Louis Blues. And St. Louis won't let someone just bank it towards the neutral zone for a prime scoring chance. They're gonna need a center who can cycle, and generate chances in the slot for Benn and Sharp. The idea that Eakin can accomplish any of this against defenders like Bouwmeester or Parayko is, I think, misguided. Ruff doesn't have it easy. With Tyler Seguin out, it's an uphill battle trying to figure out what works best.
But Dallas won't be successful against the Blues if they play them like they did the Wild. No forward during the regular season with at least 200 minutes of ice time was better at suppressing scoring chances and shot attempts than Faksa. He's already proven that he can step up. Now it's time to let him truly shine.