November 28, 2011
The time to fire Paul Maurice had arrived for the Carolina Hurricanes, with 20 points in 25 games and with four players sporting a minus rating in double-digits. So GM Jim Rutherford made an easy call for his team but a difficult call on his friend, dismissing Maurice for the second time, having now gone 384-391-145 as Hurricanes coach.
To replace him, Rutherford pulled a hell of a card from the deck: Hiring Milwaukee Admirals Coach Kirk Muller (above left, with fracking Cylon at NHL Awards).
The only reasons Kirk Muller isn't already a head coach in the National Hockey League are (a) because he isn't the strongest interviewer, according to sources, and (b) because teams with openings last summer wanted someone with head coaching experience.
Apparently, two months in the AHL were all it took for Muller to find his sea legs. He arrives in Raleigh as, arguably, the best (former) NHL assistant coach that's yet to get his shot in the big chair.
Rutherford could have played it safe, staying within the family with a Dave Lewis or a Ron Francis — perhaps he even attempted to do so. But in hiring Muller, he makes a smart, bold move that should have other fan bases a little jealous — especially in Montreal.
Muller played for 19 years in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. He was named an assistant coach with the Habs in 2006 under Guy Carbonneau, after stints with Queen's University and Team Canada's Under-18 team.
If Karl Rove was "Bush's Brain," Muller was "Jacques' Noggin": orchestrating the team's defensive system and its special teams to spectacular results, including the 2010 run to the conference finals that saw the Canadiens upset both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.
(An aside: If Montreal fans are kicking themselves over Muller, so should Capitals fans. Imagine the Guy Who Designed The 'Defeat Ovechkin' Playbook walking into that room after Bruce Boudreau was fired and explaining all of their flaws? It'd be like a government hiring the country's best hacker after he infiltrated NORAD.)
Muller's a great tactician, but he might be the perfect coach to break through to a team that appeared to tune out Maurice. From a 2010 CBC Sports story on Muller:
"I was always a little more shy than Kirk," Carbonneau said over the phone from Montreal prior to his 10-day vacation. "Kirk can get on a bus and five minutes later he knows everybody on the bus. That's his style … who he is.
"I knew my weakness was that part, so it was important to have someone beside me [on the bench] that can do that [communicating] for me."
He uses video, breaking it down in one-on-one sessions with players. He's charismatic and a communicator. Where as a coach like Maurice is rigid, Muller makes adjustments. That could be key with a versatile roster in Carolina.
"You have to be good defensively, you have to be good without the puck," he added. "But since the lockout and no red line, you've got to be able to score and you've got to be able to score at the right time. So I really stress for the guys to be a very aggressive forechecking team, and I tell my forwards that if they want to play here they gotta work … they've got to be workers and do a lot of skating and tracking down and heavy forecheck."
Muller laughed when I suggested he wants his guys to play just like he did, earning the well-deserved nickname "Kirk is Work".
"Everyone has to know how to play without the puck, but when it's a turnover I want it to be a real quick transitional team that's aggressive," he said. "And I challenge the guys that even if you feel like you're a defensive defenceman or a defensive forward, I think everyone's capable of offence and trying to get everybody involved.
"I just feel it comes down to one word at this level, and it's accountability. If you can get a bunch of guys that are willing to play for each other and understand that there's no free passes and you've got to earn your ice and be accountable, then I'm going to be totally fair to everybody. If you work and you play hard, then you'll play. I said: 'It's a two-way door. I'm here to communicate with you guys, but don't come see me if you're not ready for the answer. But you'll always know where you stand, and I'll be honest with you.' I think it's all about communicating with your guys."
The Hurricanes have the League's second worst power play (12.2 percent) and are 21st in the NHL on the kill (12.2 percent). Ask the St. Louis Blues about how simply getting your special teams house in order can reverse your fortunes.
Ask the St. Louis Blues how the right coach, with the right system and the right amount of respect from players, can rescue a season.
For a lot of teams that have filled their coaching vacancies in the last year and a half, Muller could make them regret the one that got away. He would have been good for Washington. He could have worked in Jersey, although following John MacLean would have been awkward. Montreal fans already know what he can do behind the bench; alas, "speak French" isn't one of them, so welcome to Raleigh, Monsieur Muller.