EDMONTON, Alberta – Dallas Eakins was fired Monday as coach of the Edmonton Oilers, who have lost 15 of 16 games and are well on the way to missing the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
General manager Craig MacTavish will coach the team until the job is given to Todd Nelson, who is being promoted to interim head coach from Edmonton’s American Hockey League affiliate in Oklahoma City. MacTavish did not say when he would return to the front office.
MacTavish called Eakins an “excellent coach” but said something had to be done after the losses piled up. The general manager acknowledged his share of the blame, saying there was “blood all over my hands” because he “put the lineup together.”
“I’m not here to absolve myself of accountability,” MacTavish said at a news conference.
The Oilers, once the jewel of the NHL, won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. Now, MacTavish said, all aspects of the organization, including him, remain under scrutiny.
Edmonton has 19 points through 31 games, last in the Western Conference. The Oilers went 36-63-14 under Eakins in parts of two seasons, including 7-19-5 this year. Nelson is the Oilers’ fifth head coach in seven years.
The firing came just over a week after MacTavish gave Eakins a vote of confidence, saying then the coach still had command of the dressing room and it was up to the players to turn the season around.
“The losses have an emotional toll on everybody in the organization -- at least they should -- in particular the coaching staff,” MacTavish said. “I think the fact we weren’t able to get any traction at all after that, it led me to believe the time was right for a coaching change.”
The poor play has resulted in poor attendance for a team that has not made the postseason since 2006. Rows of empty seats are common at Rexall Place and tickets can be had for fire sale prices. Hockey operations boss Kevin Lowe and owner Daryl Katz have not escaped criticism.
Eakins, with a four-year deal, was seen as an X’s and O’s wunderkind, on the cutting edge of the new generation of coaches.
It didn’t translate to the ice. The Oilers finished with the third-fewest points in the NHL in 2013-14 with a record of 29-44-9 in the one full season under Eakins. They were 7-19-5 this year, but the nature of the losses was what rankled fans on social media and talk shows.
The Oilers, despite the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall, are averaging just 2.1 goals a game. The team has been mocked as soft, with forwards not wanting to fight for the puck, preferring to shoot from the perimeter with little follow-up. The defense has been exposed as erratic and undisciplined.
Hired in the summer of 2012 to help the Oilers be “in the mix every year to win,” Eakins missed the playoffs in his only full season behind the bench. This was his first job as an NHL head coach.
“I had no real good reason to do this outside of performance,” MacTavish said of Eakins’ dismissal. “That’s the bottom line that we’re all judged by, the performance level of the hockey club and certainly the record.”
The Oilers didn’t seem to make any significant strides under their fifth coach in seven seasons. Pat Quinn (2009-10), Tom Renney (2010-12) and Ralph Krueger (2013) also failed to get the team to the playoffs.
Eakins established himself with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and got the job with the Oilers in large part because MacTavish believed he could relate to young players. Before coaching the Marlies, he was an assistant for two years with the Maple Leafs.
With an average age of under 27, the Oilers’ roster includes three No. 1 overall picks: Taylor Hall in 2010, Nugent-Hopkins in 2011 and Nail Yakupov in 2012.
MacTavish said more than a week ago there was no point in breaking up the team, saying there were few tradable assets. On Monday, he didn’t rule it out.
“I don’t want to answer that question until I get a hands-on understanding of exactly what’s happening in there (the locker room),” he said. “I want to have ample opportunity to have eyeball-to-eyeball conversations with the core group.”