Eventually, Cody Eakin will catch a break.
The 25-year-old Dallas Stars centre began the season on injured reserve — missing 17 games with a knee injury — and was subsequently suspended for four games by the NHL for a head hit on New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and has spent the last six weeks trying to pull himself out of a scoring funk of monumental proportions.
Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Jets at the MTS Centre, the Winnipeg product had one goal and six assists to show for his 35 games in 2016-17. In fact, Eakin’s struggles are a microcosm of the difficulties experienced by the defending Central Division champions, who were languishing three games below .500.
"I think we’ve all had a bit of a tough time putting it in the net," said Eakin Tuesday morning. "The opportunities have been there, we just haven’t been able to put them in when we wanted to. We’re skating well and creating chances. Sometimes we just can’t get a break. We start squeezing our sticks too much."
Stars head coach Lindy Ruff hoped for more when he inserted Eakin on the club’s top line with right-winger Patrick Eaves and all-star left-winger Jamie Benn on Jan. 17.
In 12 games, Eakins scored once and added four assists while Benn has eight goals and 16 points and Eaves had six goals and 11 points over that span.
"He’s a guy who’s had some great opportunities to finish. We had him up on our first power play for a few games and he had an empty net to put it into to get us back into a game, or at least tie a game, and he put it over the net," said Ruff. "But I look at short term here... He’s played really well in his own end, which has allowed those guys more time in the opposition’s zone. The points haven’t been there but his play away from the puck has been good. His tenacity has been good. His finish is something (else) — he’s getting that one good chance a game but hasn’t finished."
Ruff insists Eakin must do better around the net.
"Some of it’s bad luck, some of it’s accuracy," said Ruff. "You’ve gotta work to get your chances. The best players are averaging maybe two chances a game. He’s usually in on one a game and that’s one good chance for you to put it in the back of the net. And he’s missed a couple of really good opportunities, and when you miss those you can go eight to 10 games without scoring again."
Eakin, whose injured knee required surgery in the pre-season, is convinced better times are not far off. He posted 35-, 40- and 35-point seasons, respectively, in his three previous seasons in the Big D. Initially hampered by an uncomfortable knee brace in fall, Eakin ditched the brace after the Christmas break and believes his skating and fitness have returned to pre-injury levels.
"I’d like to eventually get back up to where I was — around the 40-point mark but it just hasn’t been working out," he said. "(Ruff’s) given me lots of opportunities to score and put it in the net. Like I said, it’s just been tough for us. Not just me — for a lot of us to put the puck in the net and capitalize. The chances are coming, we’re creating them so we’re doing something right. If you’re not getting opportunities to score, it’s different."
The Stars relied on scoring goals off the rush in 2015-16, a trend that has slowed this season due to multiple injuries to key personnel but also more conservative defensive schemes they are facing around the league.
"I’ve noticed that," said Eakin. "Everyone’s knows we like to rush as a team so we’ve been trying to do our best to get some movement down low and score that way. When teams have four or five guys back... we’ve had a lot of chances, we’ve had a lot of opportunties, a lot of zone time at certain times, but it hasn’t been on a consistent basis."