November 29, 2011
"Everyone's human," said Muller. "[Staal] is a workhorse. He has proven that he can be one of the elite players in the game."
Staal enters Tuesday night's game against the Florida Panthers with 11 points in 25 games and a minus-17. He's on pace for 16 goals this year, which would be the lowest total since he entered the NHL as a 19-year-old in 2003-04. In Carolina's eight wins, he's a minus-1. In their 17 losses, he's a minus-16. It's not a stretch to say as Eric Staal goes, so go the Carolina Hurricanes.
Or, at the very least, so goes the Carolina Hurricanes power play: Staal has four power-play points (3G, 1A) in 25 games, after posting 29 points last season. The Canes are second-to-last in the NHL at 12.2 percent on the power play. Last season, they weren't spectacular (15.9) but closer to respectable.
Muller's job is to make them better than average, and in the process jump-start Staal's season -- and that's going to take some psychology.
Muller's departure last summer unquestionably factored into Montreal's slow start this season, one that got another assistant coach - Perry Pearn - fired last month. Muller interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Dallas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ottawa before landing in the AHL; if the Canes didn't come calling, someone else would have, and soon.
There's some low-hanging fruit to pick here. In the short term, it will be interesting to see what Muller does with the raw material on Carolina's miserable power play, among the worst in the NHL. A combination of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner(notes), Jussi Jokinen(notes), Joni Pitkanen(notes) and, yes, Tomas Kaberle(notes) should give him something to work with.
What Muller refuses to do, apparently, to put too much of the burden on Staal to turn this team around. From Chip Alexander of the News & Observer:
"I just said to him, 'I don't need you to be Superman,'" Muller said. "I told him, ''I just want you to go out here tonight and be my hardest-working player. Just play hard, have fun, enjoy the game.'
"If he's a better player, and 19 other guys out there are better tonight than they were yesterday, then we're a better team. He doesn't have to take the burden of having to do everything. ... All he has to do is go out and lead by example. Play hard, do the little things, great body language and have fun and just be the player that he is."
Muller has long been known for his abilities as a communicator with players, whether it's as a tactician breaking down video or as a charismatic coach glad-handing on the team bus.
Staal has been a liability at times at both ends of the ice this season — ineffective on defense, seemingly snake-bit on offense.
The reasons for his slump have ranged from the concussion he gave his brother Marc to other personal strife to the loss of Erik Cole(notes) as a free agent. Muller's arrival presents a reset button on what's been a lost season, both for the Hurricanes and their captain.