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Stop me if you've heard this before: the Winnipeg Jets, a bit thin at centre, go hunting for trade-deadline help in an attempt to bolster their fortunes. The search ends with a veteran skater who is quickly plugged in to the second line in between young studs Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Paul Stastny in 2018. Kevin Hayes in 2019. And now, Cody Eakin in 2020. It's almost as if these guys have a type.
Unlike the previous two deals where first-round picks went the other way, the Jets didn't have to pay a ransom to bring their newest middle man into the fold. A conditional fourth-rounder to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Eakin was worth the gamble.
Normally, by mid-July, we'd have a verdict on whether the swap was a success or failure, but these are far from normal times, and the jury is still out since Eakin barely got his feet wet with his new club before COVID-19 brought the NHL to a halt in mid-March.
The timing couldn't have been worse for the 29-year-old Winnipeg product, who was just starting to fit in after suiting up for eight games with his new linemates. The Jets had reeled off four straight victories, with Eakin contributing the game-winning goal against the Arizona Coyotes along with three helpers in that span.
"It was definitely interesting. It was kind of uncharted territories for everyone. Guys were rolling, starting to get some confidence, the wins were coming, So it’s unfortunate that it had to shut down like that," Eakin said Tuesday following his team's summer training camp skate at Bell MTS Iceplex.
If the Jets are to make some noise in the post-season, they'll need to have more than just their top offensive line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler going. That's where Eakin can lend a helping hand. He's taking the spot traditionally held by Bryan Little, who suffered serious ear and head injuries after being hit by an Ehlers slapshot in November and has been shut down for the remainder of the season, his future very much in doubt.
A big loss, for sure. Jets head coach Paul Maurice said this week he sees plenty of similarities between Eakin and Little, both on and off the ice.
"Bryan Little’s the guy you’re trying to add at the deadline, right. The really good two-way pro, the guy you’re not really coaching because he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. He’s got a great work ethic. So you miss that out of your room. Where we were fortunate is that we were able to find a player in some ways who is a bit like that, certainly in temperament and personality and focus on the game," said Maurice.
"Cody’s not an outspoken guy, neither was Bryan, and they both know their way around the defensive zone very, very well and Cody scored a bunch of goals last year, so he can produce points. We know that Bryan had done that for us. I think you asked me to quantify it. I don’t think I can, but I can tell you we’re fortunate to add a player that’s similar in temperament and professionalism as Bryan."
Eakin hadn't heard the comments from his new coach until I mentioned them Tuesday.
"That’s pretty nice. From what I know of him (Little), he’s a really strong competitor, he’s smart, he plays the game the right way at all ends of the ice. I’ve battled with him in the faceoff circle for a number of years and we’ve gone back and forth. Unfortunately I haven’t had any time to spend with him just passing through the hallway, but that’s nice," said Eakin.
The key is to find chemistry with Laine and Ehlers. Stastny had it in spades, which was a big reason the Jets went all the way to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018. Hayes, not so much, and he was eventually moved down the lineup as Winnipeg was eliminated in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
Eakin, who is just one year removed from scoring a career-high 22 goals with the Golden Knights, said it's tough to tell given the small sample size, but he's encouraged by the early returns.
"These guys create so much space on the ice from the defensive zone moving forward, just backing guys off and beating guys wide and shooting the puck. It’s fun to be a part of. It took one or two games to kind of get my legs under me. You’ve got two guys on your wings that can really fly and they’re really creating offence, creating areas and pockets and speed and just generating room all around the ice, and both lethal with the puck on their sticks. A couple games in we started to find a bit of a rhythm," said Eakin.
"Things were kinda progressing, the wins were coming, we were chipping in and we were having fun. So it’s good to get back out with those guys and get back on the ice and try to pick up where we left off."
In addition to keeping fit during the four-month break, Eakin was watching the off-ice NHL business closely, especially as it pertains to the financial structure of the league and future salary cap given the uncertain economic times, which includes playing without fans at least for now.
Eakin is a pending unrestricted free agent, in the final year of a deal paying him US$3.85 million per season. With no growth projected on the US$81.5-million cap for the coming few years, that could hinder guys in his position hoping for the next big deal to come their way. He'd likely have some contract clarity in a normal year, given July 1 signals the start of free agency. Now, that's not expected to happen until at least mid-October.
"There's no sense really worrying about it. It's kind of a weird time for everyone and, us as hockey players, it's no different. One day at a time, we're focusing on the now. We're focusing on the qualifying round here and worrying about the rest later," said Eakin.
Eakin is hoping to get back to hockey's promised land, as he did in 2018 when the expansion Golden Knights made it to the Cup final only to be downed by the Washington Capitals.
"It’s going to be interesting for sure. It’s going to be a little different. But at the end of the day, it’s still the same game on the same sheet of ice, so it’ll be fun. It’ll be fun, it’ll be fast, it’ll be hard, it’ll be competitive and we’re looking forward to it," he said.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 1:47 PM CDT: fixes grammatical error, from good to well in subhead
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