TORONTO – They sat there, the two hockey lifers, and managed to get a few friendly digs in at one another while comparing notes.
Conversation came easily for Dallas Eakins and Randy Carlyle as they watched the Toronto Marlies go through a full scrimmage at training camp on Monday morning. Finalists for the Maple Leafs head coaching job that was given to Carlyle in March, the long-ago teammates are working closely together now because of the NHL lockout.
“Randy and I go way back, we’ve got a great relationship, and that’s not going to change,” said Eakins.
If all goes to plan, the Marlies coach will play an important role in changes Carlyle hopes to implement with the Maple Leafs this season.
Eakins has been tasked with teaching the American Hockey League team a defensive system that will be adopted by the parent club once the lockout ends. At its core, Eakins says the new approach focuses on outnumbering the opposition in the defensive end, and it’s a significant enough change that he expects players will need time to adapt.
The entire exercise underscores the challenges faced by an AHL team. One season after allowing a league-low 175 goals and losing in the Calder Cup final, the Marlies are tinkering with their own success in an effort to give the Maple Leafs a boost.
“It doesn’t matter what we did last year — my job is to teach what the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to do,” said Eakins. “(The new defensive system) is something Randy is at least going to experiment with. Obviously he’ll either stick with or not, but I am teaching the Leafs systems immediately.
“It’s imperative that our players know them inside out.”
The NHL lockout has created an interesting coaching dynamic for all organizations to manage. On Sunday, the Washington Capitals made Adam Oates a co-coach of AHL Hershey with Mark French for the duration of the work stoppage. Others, like Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, have taken part in on-ice drills with AHL affiliates.
Carlyle would prefer to keep a little more distance than that.
Even though the Leafs coach has attended every day of training camp with the Marlies so far, he’s mindful of the fine line that must be walked. While wanting to make himself available as a resource to Eakins, he doesn’t want to leave the impression he’s meddling with the Marlies.
“We’ve had a few conversations,” said Carlyle, who coached the AHL’s Manitoba Moose during the last lockout. “I think it’s healthy. But we’re not here to coach the Toronto Marlies — it’s Dallas Eakins’ job — what we’re here trying to do is just to get an evaluation on some of the players that are here.
“If he has some questions we’re a sounding board.”
Eakins would have it no other way.
A big believer in the importance of sharing information and ideas, he expressed a hope that Carlyle would take time during the lockout to look over his shoulder and offer input. In fact, Eakins indicated that he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same if he took in a Maple Leafs practice and saw something that caught his eye.
“That’s part of being a team and that’s how we want our organization to be,” said Eakins.
The Marlies coach was open about his disappointment in March when he wasn’t chosen by Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke to replace Ron Wilson. However, Eakins noted at the time that the NHL team made a good choice in bringing on Carlyle.
The two first crossed paths with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93, when Carlyle was wrapping up a lengthy NHL playing career and the soon-to-be journeyman Eakins was playing his first handful of games in the league. He would go on to play 120 games for eight different NHL teams, while also seeing stints in the AHL and now-defunct IHL.
All these years later, Eakins and Carlyle are together again.
“He’s a competitor, a guy that played in a lot of different organizations and wore a lot of different hats for different teams,” said Carlyle. “He was a student of the game and now you can see that he’s taken the next step. He’s a very qualified coach in the AHL and the NHL isn’t too far off for him.”