- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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There are the daily demands of the job -- the X's and O's to draw up and deliver, the minutiae to scrutinize, the constant shuffling of personnel to manage -- but for Dallas Eakins of the Edmonton Oilers, there is a greater undertaking in his first year as a head coach.
How do you cultivate a culture of winning within an organization that has managed to accrue plenty of talent by virtue of its own repeated failures? Hint: It's not easy.
"It's the constant message that everything we do has a purpose, and that purpose is to win. And we can never, ever look away from it," Eakins said last week during the Oiler's six-game road trip. "It's a real commitment. It's easy to come off the message some days, but for me, it's something I'm very aware of."
"Believe me," Eakins said with the weariness of a coach who had just seen his team lose four straight, "it's an every-day, every-minute process."
Boasting a lineup with some of the most talented youngsters in the league -- Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz -- the Oilers seem like a team that should be on the precipice. After all, how many clubs these days have three straight years with the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft? Isn't it finally time for that talent to translate into results?
And yet, nine games into the season, Edmonton is toiling at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 2-6-1 record.
"Amazes me that, with that many No. 1 picks, they still can't get it right," one NHL scout said. "They don't have any hardness to their game. [They] only want to play from the red line in."
Granted, the team recently has been hit hard with injuries -- Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Smyth are questionable for Tuesday's tilt in Montreal. More importantly, the goaltending has been suspect at best. Even after turning away 72 of 76 shots in his past two starts, netminder Devan Dubnyk is among the league's worst in even-strength save percentage (.876).
Still, the dramatic turnaround has yet to take shape, and the development of the team's future hangs in the balance. Eakins' recent decision to scratch Yakupov for two games sparked trade rumors for a spell, although the possibility of parting with a player with Yakupov's skill set seems absurd. Instead, the Oilers shipped hard-checking fourth-liner Mike Brown to San Jose in a trade Monday night, acquiring a fourth-round pick and clearing cap space in the process.
Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have had their moments -- both registered multigoal games in the past week -- but the team still has managed only one win in its past six outings.
"It's tough, without a doubt," said captain Andrew Ference, who assumed leadership of the squad after inking a four-year deal as an unrestricted free agent this summer. "It's a tough, tough thing to come in and tell the guys to keep their head up and do the right thing and not sound like you're full of it, but it has honestly been my assessment, and I think the coaches' assessment, that the direction is going the right way."
Ference knows a thing or two about winning. He was a member of the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup-winning team in 2011. He understands the patience and steadiness that building a contender requires, and he sees the necessary signs of improvement from his Oilers teammates.
"Everybody's grown up enough and knows the game well enough to know when you have an absolute stinker and there's no positives to take from it and the team feels lost," Ference said. "But it hasn't been like that. It has a different feeling."
Nugent-Hopkins, who has four goals and six points through his first seven games, said he thinks the team's record is deceiving.
"I don't think our record really indicates how we're playing," Nugent-Hopkins told ESPN.com on Thursday. "I think we've taken some really good steps here the past few games."
Nugent-Hopkins will have to be an integral factor in helping the Oilers orchestrate an about-face. His production is already a bright spot for the downtrodden team, especially considering that he is coming off shoulder surgery. The precocious 20-year-old pivot, who averaged more than 25 minutes per night in his first three games back from injury, already has learned a lot about managing expectations in his first two years as a professional.
Whether it's picking up the guitar (a new skill he's trying to hone) or unwinding with video games, Nugent-Hopkins has gained an appreciation for the need for balance outside of hockey. That's one kernel of advice he'll be passing on to Yakupov, whose recent benching is a keen reminder of the extreme peaks and troughs in each season.
"I think, individually, do whatever you can to try to have an escape from the rink once in a while, just something to take your mind off it. I think that's big," Nugent-Hopkins said, nodding in Yakupov's direction. "He's finding that now."
It stands to reason that Edmonton's skill eventually will trump the team's growing pains, but the underlying numbers aren't encouraging. Although it is an admittedly small sample size, Edmonton is in the bottom six in the Corsi and Fenwick metrics, advanced statistics designed to quantify puck possession time. The team has a middle-of-the road PDO, as well, which indicates that the rough stretch doesn't necessarily look like a rash of bad luck or a phenomenon that is destined to change dramatically.
Although Eakins probably is more inclined to rely on that information than others (see: Randy Carlyle, Toronto), his immediate attention must take a more qualitative approach. By all accounts, he is the man for the job. Eakins has a fresh outlook and a demanding style that has yielded results in the past in his time coaching the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
His presence behind the bench is a commanding one. Veterans and rookies alike have taken notice.
"He's a guy that shows a lot of compete through his lineup. He holds guys accountable," Smyth told ESPN.com before an injury sent him on his way back to Edmonton. "He wants to win, and he shows that."
Eakins has the benefit of youth and speed and talent in his charges. Now, he has to show them how to win and how to do that consistently -- how to make it a habit. It has not been easy. At times, it has appeared downright exasperating. But, Eakins has seen some promising glimpses.
What has resonated most, especially in the days when a simple glance at the standings is disheartening, is the spark that remains. He still recognizes the desire to win from his team. And he can work with that.
"We are seeing a group that's fighting. They're not trying to get away from it. They're not turning away, dragging their lips. They're in the fight," Eakins said. "That's the biggest thing for me right now. If we can have that fight and have players step up, this can get turned around very quickly."
The Edmonton Oilers have a young, talented roster and some veteran leaders, but they're still trying to build a winning culture, writes ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang.