Monday, November 28, 2011
A new chapter for Carolina with Kirk Muller
By Scott Burnside
Sometimes a coaching change is as much about giving players a clean slate on which to define themselves as it is about finding a better coach.
And if you're lucky, it's both.
For a month or so, as his team lurched about near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was making calls and talking to people about who might be the best person to take over the Hurricanes' head-coaching spot if he decided to replace Paul Maurice.
"At the end of the search, he stood out against the others," Carolina GM Rutherford said of coach Kirk Muller (pictured).
At the end of the day, the team's four wins in 14 November games convinced Rutherford that he needed to make such a change, and his conversations led him in one direction, that of Kirk Muller.
"At the end of the search, he stood out against the others," Rutherford told ESPN.com Monday afternoon, shortly before Muller was to be announced as the team's coach.
The Nashville Predators are to be commended for their role in this coaching move, as Muller was under contract to the Preds, coaching their AHL team in Milwaukee. Because the NHL no longer allows teams to ask for compensation in these kinds of situations, it would have been easy for the Predators to tell Rutherford to come back in the offseason. The move was disruptive to a team that prides itself on consistency and continuity. But they didn't.
"We just don't believe in holding anybody back," David Poile told ESPN.com Monday. "We didn't want to stand in Kirk's way."
The qualities that led Poile to snag the veteran NHLer to coach Nashville's top farm team were the very same qualities that led Rutherford to ask for Muller's release.
An NHL captain, a Stanley Cup winner, an assistant coach with a top organization in Montreal and a leader.
"He brings with him a wealth of experience both as a coach and as a top player," Poile said.
"He brings character and leadership and good communication skills to our team," Rutherford said of the 45-year-old who was selected second overall in the 1984 entry draft, one behind Mario Lemieux.
It would have been highly surprising had Rutherford not made the call to Poile that another team, perhaps more than one, would have made in the coming days. Of all the coaches not coaching in the NHL at the start of this season, Muller was considered a sure thing to find his way behind an NHL bench.
Now Rutherford will get a chance to find out if the hype that surrounded Muller was well-founded. Beyond that, he's going to find out, for the first time this season at least, what kind of team he has.
Can Muller, a native of Kingston, Ontario, be the kind of coach that turns the Canes' fortunes around and gets them back in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference?
"That's a hard one to answer," Rutherford acknowledged.
"I don't know exactly how good we are. I believe we're better than what we've done so far."
Rutherford would like to unload a defenseman and add a top six forward, but he understands that's easier said than done. And he would like to see a consistent level of effort night in and night out, the kind of effort that has been missing in recent days as it became clear Maurice and the team were headed in opposite directions.
What is certain with this change is that all those players who got off to horrible starts or felt they weren't being used properly under Maurice will get a chance to start fresh.
Those first 20 games, "that's the end of that chapter," Rutherford said.
A new page gets turned Tuesday night, when the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers come to town for Muller's first game as an NHL head coach.
Eric Staal will be able to forget his five goals and minus-17 rating.
Cam Ward will be able to forget his 3.10 goals-against average.
Tomas Kaberle will be able to forget his haphazard play that led to him being a healthy scratch.