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Dallas Eakins emerges as Flyers' coaching candidate

It’s important to look beyond his won-loss record at talent-starved Edmonton to see his positives.

HOW MUCH is on the coach? How much is on the players?

They are the questions St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong will be asking today, one day after his Blues were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight spring despite one of the best rosters in the league. Ken Hitchcock figures to join the deep ranks of coaching free agents.

They are the questions Ron Hextall will be asking himself when it comes to candidate Dallas Eakins, who was fired in December after a season and a half in Edmonton.

Eakins is the first name officially connected to the Flyers' head coaching vacancy, as mentioned on "Hockey Night in Canada.'' When he will be interviewed by Hextall remains unclear, though he is on the list, which Hextall admitted previously may include a "hell of a lot" of people.

Spend five minutes listening to Eakins, it's not hard to figure out why the Flyers are interested.

Eakins is a captivating, sharp guy. He played at the NHL level. He is a tireless worker, desperate for any edge (small or big) to make his team successful.

"I don't understand being 'for' or 'against' analytics," Eakins said Feb. 28 at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "You should be 'for' everything. Why can't players have old-school attributes and strong analytics?"

Less than two years ago, Eakins was the impossible-to-miss next NHL coach coming out of the AHL. He cut his teeth with the Toronto Marlies, leading them to the 2012 Calder Cup final, where they fell to Norfolk and current Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

Both Eakins and Cooper are similar - in age, in bench demeanor, in interest in analytics - in almost everything except background. While Cooper was working on Wall Street, studying in law school or serving as a public defender in Michigan, Eakins was shuttling between the NHL and AHL as a player.

Cooper, 47, replaced Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay on March 25, 2013. Eakins, 48, was hired in Edmonton on June 10.

Eakins landed in a decidedly less desirable spot: with the young, fragile Oilers, the only franchise to not make the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2006. The Lightning, with Steven Stamkos, were two years removed from an Eastern Conference finals run.

Now, with an unsightly 36-63-14 record, the Oilers are a stain on Eakins' once-polished resume.

Did Eakins suddenly lose all of that shine in 113 games? Or does the blame mostly lie with Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe in the construction of the Oilers?

"I had no real good reason to do this outside performance," MacTavish said on Dec. 15, the day Eakins was fired, calling Eakins a "terrific coach."

Yes, the Oilers finished with a better mark under Todd Nelson (17-25-9) than they had under Eakins (7-19-5). A closer look at the numbers would tell you Eakins was on to something.

It took Nelson 43 games to earn the same number of regulation wins (6) they had under Eakins in the first 15. The Oilers' power play scored more under Nelson, but their team save percentage was still a league-worst .892 when the league average was .914.

In Eakins' first season, the Oilers' Corsi-for percentage (which helps illustrate puck possession) was 43.7 percent. In the first 31 games of this season, it was 50.9 percent. Despite limited depth and talent, Eakins seemed to get the Oilers into a situation where they had the puck more.

With the Flyers, there would also be deficiencies in the roster, but Eakins would have the benefit of more complete top-end talent to go with a few younger pieces who haven't been pushed to their full potential.

The record wasn't pretty, but Eakins left that Edmonton proving ground self-aware, armed with the experience of rookie coaching mistakes and important lessons learned.

"We probably got a little ahead of ourselves, system-wise," Eakins said in his outgoing press conference. "We should have probably went harder after the fundamentals of the game. This group is growing and it's going to mature, but unfortunately growing and maturing takes time. I know it's what people don't want to hear, but I can say it freely now. Craig [MacTavish] has been here 20 months. Everybody breathe. Let him go about his business. Show some patience. And let him get this sorted out."

Those wise words would fit quite well with the Flyers, making Eakins a fascinating choice, but only if Hextall can get past the numbers and focused more on process. Devan Dubnyk, Nick Schultz and Jeff Petry look a lot better away from Edmonton, too.

Slap shots

Commissioner Gary Bettman said next season's salary cap is projected at $71.5 million, off from the $73 million in December and the $71.7 rock bottom in January. That number could be even lower if the NHLPA decides to combat the standard 5 percent "escalator" already included in the calculation . . . The Flyers have roughly $64 million committed to 18 players for next season . . . Sidney Crosby will join Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier as teammates for the first time this week on Team Canada when the IIHF World Championships kick off in Prague, Czech Republic on Friday. Canada will face Jake Voracek, Jaromir Jagr and the host Czechs on May 4.