Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins talks to his players while playing the New York Rangers during third period NHL pre-season hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday September 24, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
EDMONTON - When new Edmonton Oilers head coach and fitness devotee Dallas Eakins warned journalists there would no more donuts at the snack table, the joke became he didn't want anyone to focus on the hole at centre.
But that is exactly what the Oilers face as they begin their quest in 2013-14 to return to the playoffs.
No. 1 centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, coming off a surgically repaired left shoulder, is not expected back until November.
No. 2 centre Sam Gagner is out for two months after Vancouver Canuck Zack Kassian smashed his jaw and unhinged his teeth with an errant stick last Saturday.
Taylor Hall, the team's top scorer from last season, has been moved from left wing to centre and, at least in the early going, will shoulder much of the team's hopes and expectations down the middle.
Hall, the 2010 first-overall pick, finished ninth in league scoring last season with 16 goals and 50 points in 45 games.
He leads a talented core of scoring talent featuring Gagner, Nugent-Hopkins, puck wizard Nail Yakupov, and Jordan Eberle.
Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Eberle are all locked up under contract until 2015 or longer, but the future is now.
Eakins, coming off four successful years coaching the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, said his bedrock beliefs are fitness, attention to detail, and competing.
Compete, compete, compete.
"You guys are going to get sick and tired of me saying it's (all about) the competition, the compete," Eakins warned reporters during training camp.
"You can bring sandpaper (grit to your game) and be a skill player at the same time."
Eakins, 46, was hired in June by new general manager—and former Oiler player and coach—Craig MacTavish.
MacTavish interviewed Eakins for an assistant coach job but was so smitten with Eakins' philosophy that he hired him almost on the spot, sacking head coach Ralph Krueger via Skype.
MacTavish has since delivered some bodies to help Eakins, starting with shifty left-winger David Perron from the St. Louis Blues.
Perron, 25, has been a star scorer this pre-season after chafing for years under the defence-first philosophy in St. Louis.
Centre Boyd Gordon, acquired from Phoenix for his defensive and face-off skills, may see added ice time and take on a more offensive role given the injuries down the middle.
Pleasant surprises at camp has been the play of returning veteran forwards Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. The pair have flanked Hall to become the most effective line in the pre-season.
Toughness became an issue in the Vancouver game, which also saw Hall take an illegal head shot from Canuck Dale Weise. Within days, MacTavish remedied that by acquiring fist-swinging man-mountain Steve MacIntyre off waivers from Pittsburgh.
"You need a deterrent, especially with our team," said MacTavish, referring to the six-foot-five, 271-pound MacIntyre, now on his second go-round with the Oilers.
The defence, long considered the team's Achilles heel, was overhauled yet again.
It will now be led by Andrew Ference. The 34-year-old former Stanley Cup winner in Boston signed a four-year deal and may be Eakins' pick in the coming days to become captain to replace the departed Shawn Horcoff.
Ference joins rising stars Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz on the blue-line along with the reliable Ladislav Smid.
In goal Devan Dubnyk emerged as a solid No. 1 last year. Jason LaBarbera will be the backup, replacing the departed Nikolai Khabibulin.
The X-factor for the season remains Eakins.
Eakins has been nothing short of a hit with fans given his democratic, meritocratic, common-sense approach to the game.
His philosophy is simple: at the NHL level the line between winning and losing often hinges on mistakes, and most mistakes are mistakes caused by fatigue. So the team that finds the slight edge in fitness wins the day.
He is organized. Six weeks before training camp the players received letters on what they will be doing each day.
Nothing is left to chance. He ordered pictures of Oiler stars from the past removed from the dressing room to be replaced with pictures of the current team.
The message is clear: This is your team. Make your own history.
It's the small things, he believes, that will get the Oilers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Since then, the Oilers are 0 for 7 in making the post-season in a league where the worst draft first and more than half the teams make the playoffs.
Zero for seven.
Now that's a big donut.