Muller Brings in Fresh Perspective

An Excited, Confident First-Time NHL Coach Provides the Canes with a Different Look Behind the Bench

Monday, 11.28.2011 / 7:40 PM / Tracking the Storm
By Michael Smith
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Muller Brings in Fresh Perspective

Kirk Muller was introduced Monday evening as the new head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. For Muller and the team, it’s been a whirlwind 24 hours.

Michael Smith
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On Saturday and Sunday, Muller was in Charlotte, behind the bench for the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals as they faced off with the Checkers. On Sunday night in Ottawa, the Hurricanes dropped a 4-3 decision to the Senators.

A day and a few flights to and from Milwaukee later, Muller has secured his first post as a head coach in the National Hockey League.

He won’t have much time to savor the moment – the Canes host the Florida Panthers in just 24 hours – but he’s certainly ready to hit the ground running as the new bench boss.

Excitement

Though Muller had not yet spoken with many of his assistant coaches or the team, one thing is clear: he is excited to get started.

Muller has said it was his dream to be a coach in the NHL; to see that dream realized today brought out sheer exuberance in the 45-year-old.

“I just want to say how excited I am to join an organization that in a short time has shown what it’s like to be a champion,” he said. “It’s a special day for me.”

Muller totaled 1,349 games in the NHL over 19 seasons with six different teams. Since then, he’s served as head coach for Queen’s University, an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens and head coach of the Admirals in the AHL, a team he guided to a 10-6-1 record this season.

“There’s nothing like being a player, but the next [best] thing I found was the coaching,” he said. “Getting in there and getting in the grind with the guys and the game and feeding off the atmosphere – that’s what it’s all about.”

Aside from the dream and rush of being an NHL coach, Muller is impressed with the Canes’ organization and the area as a whole, as many have told him. His daughter, who graduates high school this school year, is already looking at schools in the area, he said.

“One of the big reasons I took this position is because I look at the roster and I look at the depth, and I think it’s an organization that’s got a lot of good young players,” he said. “It’s exciting and fun to be a part of.”

Time for a Change

Rutherford said that he has been exploring different coaching options for about a month, though it would be premature to say that the Canes would have made a move behind the bench that far back. The tipping point was the 4-0 loss in Montreal and the inconsistent play that followed. The Canes have gone 4-9-1 in November, a month seen by the team as important to building success early.

“I’ve talked to Kirk now for 7-10 days,” Rutherford said. “After going through that process of all the possibilities, clearly Kirk was our number one choice.”

Rutherford said that vice president and assistant general manager Jason Karmanos and director of hockey operations Ron Francis put together a short list of coaching candidates. In addition to Muller, Jeff Daniels, the head coach of the Charlotte Checkers, was among the considered.

In the end, Rutherford said he liked what Daniels was doing in Charlotte and wanted to bring in someone with an outside perspective.

“I did talk to Jeff Daniels, who is prepared to be a head coach,” he said. “Moving him here, that disrupts the development part of what we’re trying to do in Charlotte. I think very highly of [him].

“At the end of the process, I really wanted to bring somebody in that had some ideas from another organization. Between the teams that Kirk’s played for and then working for the Montreal Canadiens, he will bring some new, fresh ideas to our team.”

Surrounding Muller will be the same group of assistants that were here under Maurice – Dave Lewis, Tom Barrasso and Rod Brind’Amour. Rutherford said that he has been satisfied with the work they’ve done this season.

For Muller, not all of these faces are new: Lewis was his first roommate in New Jersey.

“Funny how it goes around in circles,” Muller said.

Philosophies

From the outset, Muller made a few things clear in just a few words: hard work and accountability.

“I know what I want from a team,” he said, confidently. “For me, I’m honest, straightforward. I believe in accountability. I believe that it’s a tough league. You’ve got to work hard. If everyone is accountable to each other and everyone buys into the system, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

“If everyone buys into the same philosophy, everyone has the same goals, everyone’s willing to do the same thing and make the same commitment – it’s really simple,” he said. “It’s simple to say, but not always easy to do.”

How that philosophy translates in the locker room and on the ice remains to be seen, but coming from an ex-player who’s been through it all, it’s likely to be a message that resonates.

That’s the big picture, but what about specifics? Can Muller relate to Eric Staal, who has struggled out of the gate, recording just 11 points (5g, 6a) and a minus-17 in 25 games? Can Muller, who was known for his special teams work in Montreal, help the Canes’ ailing power play, which ranks next to dead-last in the league?

“Well, you’ve got to remember that everybody’s human, and we go through stretches of our careers that you face different issues,” Muller said of Staal. “You go through highs and lows, and I think it would be great to have an opportunity to sit down and talk to him. He’s a workhorse.”

And the power play?

“I’ve really got to dissect it more,” he said. “The skill’s there. But the five best players in the game doesn’t mean you’ll have the best power play. It’s a matter of breaking it down, seeing the options they give you and executing.”

Overall, the game that Muller will bring to the ice will be fast and aggressive. It will be focused on puck possession. It will be solid defensively in being strong offensively.

“You need speed. You need to be a good transitional team because you need to score goals,” Muller said of today’s game. “In order to do that, you’ve got to be in shape, you’ve got to be willing to work and you’ve got to be ready to play a high-tempo game.”

Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

Though Muller’s philosophies about the game and its intricacies may differ from Paul Maurice’s, don’t expect instant results. Implementing a new system takes more time than a morning skate allots.

“You’re not going to walk in tomorrow and fire a whole bunch of different X’s and O’s and walk out tomorrow and say it’s going to work,” Muller said.

“A new coach can’t just come in, put in his new system in the morning skate and all of a sudden make things better,” Rutherford said. “We may win tomorrow night, we may not. Really what I want to see is that, on a consistent basis, we have that work ethic. And when we get to that consistent basis, the wins will come.”

Player movement still isn’t out of the question either, according to Rutherford, who feels that the team still hasn’t jelled in the way it needs to in order to be successful. Bringing in a new coach is the first step in righting the ship for this season; making a trade for a top nine forward could be the next.

Either way, Rutherford said he will first have to see what Muller can do with the guys presently on the roster.

“Hopefully I can come in and get them to feel good and play at the level we see that they’re capable of doing,” Muller said. “Get things rolling because it happens quick.”

The Bottom Line

Based on early impressions, it is easy to see that Muller has great potential to be a coach with whom players can readily connect. It might be his first coaching gig in the NHL, but he won’t be too much of a stranger in the locker room.

“I know what it’s like to be a first-round draft pick starting off in Jersey being a number-one center. I was a number-two center. I was a checking third-line center. The end of my career I was fourth line. I played left-wing, played the power play, killed penalties, was told to sit out as a healthy scratch,” he said. “Because of it, I think I have a good feel of what everyone has, what they feel. In that case, I just feel like I’m a good communicator. I can talk to them and try to get the best out of them.”

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