Eakins in Vancouver Mix

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 24) – Dallas Eakins summarized, respectfully yet unmistakably, his feeling about returning for another year as coach of the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies. “I’ve got contract time left here,” he intoned with the enthusiasm of a man about to prep for a colonoscopy. “We’ll see what happens with that stuff.”

The “stuff” Eakins referred to was a future that no longer correlates to the AHL. By universal measure in the hockey world, he has earned a shot at the big time – the National Hockey League – by virtue of a demonstrated ability to guide an ever-changing club to significant heights, and to capably prepare franchise chattels for deployment with the Maple Leafs. This task – though invaluable to both the organization and the flourishing prospect behind the bench – has an unequivocal shelf life. For Eakins, the “best before” date has come and gone. It is time for him to move up to the next, and ultimate, level.

Desire and opportunity may come together in Vancouver, where Alain Vigneault was fired this week after his team pulled a 1-and-8 in playoff matches the past two springs. Upon dismissing Vigneault, Canucks GM Mike Gillis spoke about the need for a new voice; a different message. With that in mind, a couple of sources told me on Thursday the Canucks are rather enamored of Eakins… and why not? The re-cycling of coaches can be effective; it certainly was in Los Angeles, where Darryl Sutter emerged from dormancy in Viking, Alta. to guide the Kings to the Stanley Cup last year. Lindy Ruff will appropriately be on any team’s short list of replacements.

But, the unproven can also thrive; to wit: Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh; Mike Babcock in Anaheim and Detroit; Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Anaheim; Todd Richards in Columbus; Jack Capuano on the Island; Adam Oates in Washington and Randy Carlyle here in town, to name a few.

Bylsma, Babcock, Boudreau, Carlyle, Richards and Capuano all apprenticed, to varying lengths, in the AHL.

DALLAS EAKINS: VANCOUVER COULD BE CALLING.

Hiring Eakins could provide Gillis two-pronged satisfaction.

If Dallas can maintain the Canucks’ strong regular-season showing and take the club to another level in the playoffs, the GM will attain an added measure of job security. It would also provide Gillis a bit of a “got’cha” in his long-range ego ruckus with former Leafs manager Brian Burke, who chose not to promote Eakins after firing Ron Wilson last season. The move to Carlyle certainly boosted the re-cycling argument, as Leafs were greatly improved. But, Eakins would have been able to grow with the organization that gave him his start and perhaps cultivate a longer shelf-life than Carlyle, whose coaching message has already been tuned out by one NHL team.

Leafs once before overlooked their top coaching prospect and Marc Crawford went on to a fairly decent big-league career – winning 549 NHL games and the 1996 Stanley Cup with Colorado Avalanche. 

Eakins, if hired by Vancouver, will undoubtedly provide Gillis the new voice and approach he covets. Let’s see how it all plays out.

RED WINGS ON A DIFFERENT PLATEAU

Is there a better team in all of professional sport than the Detroit Red Wings? If so, please inform me. Here is a club that has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 21 consecutive seasons, winning the NHL championship four times since 1997. The most remarkable accomplishment of all, however, could be unfolding this spring. Upon retirement of the irreplaceable Nick Lidstrom, Detroit predictably took a dive in the Western Conference standings and squeaked into the playoffs in the final days of the lockout-shortened schedule. Then, the Red Wings of old began to emerge.

Down, 3-2, to second-place Anaheim in the opening round, Detroit recovered to prevail in seven games – winning the deciding match on the road. In the opener of the Conference semifinals, the Wings were thoroughly out-classed by Chicago at United Center. Since then, it hasn’t been much of a contest – Detroit fully earning three consecutive victories to put the NHL’s No. 1 team all season on the brink of elimination. Blackhawks can be vanquished Saturday on home ice, where Detroit dominated, 4-1, last weekend.

Should we be surprised?

Perhaps moderately. What the Wings are showing, however, is the long-term effect of winning. It has evolved, for two decades, from veteran players to youngsters – the torch repeatedly passed within an environment of expectation and reward. What else should we really expect from the most remarkable franchise in all of North American sport?      

JIMMY HOWARD AND THE SURGING DETROIT RED WINGS REJOICE AS DISAPPOINTED CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS LEAVE THE BENCH AT JOE LOUIS ARENA LAST NIGHT AFTER RED WINGS CRAFTED A 3-1 SERIES LEAD IN WEST SEMIFINAL. CBC IMAGES

PROLONGING THE INEVITABLE

Until Chris Kreider scored 7:03 into overtime last night at Madison Square Garden, I could have sworn New York Rangers were playing to have John Tortorella fired. Boston Bruins – needing a goal to sweep Rangers and advance to the Eastern Conference final – skated circles around the home team in the extra session and three times came within inches of ending the series. Only a perfect re-direction by Kreider of Rick Nash’s feed enabled Rangers to live for at least two more days – until Game 5 at TD Garden on Saturday (5:30 p.m. EDT). Game 6 should not be required.

THE RANGER PLAYERS; FANS AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN AND JOHN TORTORELLA (BOTTOM-RIGHT) WERE JUBILANT AFTER THE OVERTIME WIN LAST NIGHT, BUT I’M NOT CERTAIN THE RANGERS WERE PLAYING FOR THEIR COACH. TSN IMAGES

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Pardon me as I modestly suggest the Ottawa Senators not be written off in their Eastern Conference semifinal against Pittsburgh. Romping in a playoff game – as Penguins did, 7-3, in Ottawa Wednesday night – isn’t always beneficial. Hockey players are human beings. The Pittsburgh humans are bound to feel they have softened their opponent for the kill while the Ottawa humans are likely to be a bit snarly after a humiliation. That combo could easily result in a Game 6 at Scotiabank Place on Sunday.

The example that always comes to mind is the Toronto-Detroit playoff series of 1993. With a chance to eliminate the Red Wings, Leafs were demolished, 7-3, in Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The trip to Detroit for Game 7 was viewed – in these parts – as a scheduling formality, all hands believing the Wings had finally overcome Toronto’s gallant threat. Not so fast.

Leafs and Wings played evenly for three periods – the antithesis of Game 6 – and the visitors legendarily prevailed early in overtime on a goal by Nik Borschevsky. With that in mind, it says here the Senators are not through.

AN ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR SCENE IN GAME 4 AT OTTAWA. BUT, DO NOT WRITE OFF THE SENATORS JUST YET. FRANCOIS LaPLANTE GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

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