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Every off-season, NHL general managers search for the best possible head coaching candidates to fill their voids behind the bench. The hottest name on the market this past summer was Kirk Muller, the former assistant in Montreal. He interviewed for three vacancies, but when nothing came to fruition he decided to give the AHL a shot.
Following a cup of coffee in Milwaukee, Muller was called up to the NHL, so to speak. He now finds himself behind an NHL bench for the first time in what is sure to be a lengthy coaching career.
When Muller took the job in Carolina on Nov. 28, he left a Milwaukee Admirals club that possessed a lot of talent and was 10-6-0 at the time. A handful of players on the Admirals roster when Muller left praised the coach for abruptly leaving to pursue his coaching dream.
“We were actually coming back from playing Carolina’s farm team in Charlotte,” Admirals goaltender Jeremy Smith said. “In the airport we saw him talking on the phone and knew something was up. We didn’t know if someone was traded or not. The next morning we got to the rink and he wasn’t there. We didn’t get to say goodbye because he was obligated not to say anything because it wasn’t released (to the public).
“He’s a great guy, a great coach and I wish him the best of luck.”
Said defenseman Ryan Ellis, “We were a little shocked; we didn’t quite know what was going on. It’s just like any of us – we all want to get called up to the NHL, and he got an offer in the NHL. You can’t blame the guy for getting a job in the NHL.”
When the Nashville Predators hired Muller in the summer to take over their farm team in Milwaukee, they figured he wouldn’t be around too long, given his status of being a fast riser in the coaching ranks. So when the Hurricanes felt Muller was their guy and asked for permission to speak with him, Nashville had no qualms about letting the coach fulfill his goal of getting to the NHL.
“That was very classy and I was very appreciative,” Muller said of Nashville’s decision. “When I took the Milwaukee job I was prepared for a couple years there. You never know when doors will open. It was a great chance for me to come (to Carolina) with a great young team with great leaders.
“As for Nashville, (GM) David Poile was amazing. (Assistant GM) Paul Fenton not only allowed me to go, but gave me the feeling of support and wished me luck. They are very classy people and I was very appreciative of how they handled it all.”
Predators head coach Barry Trotz even offered Muller his best wishes in Carolina.
“He just called me to wish me good luck,” Muller said of his conversation with Trotz. “He even went through some ideas about the rebuilding stages, so he was a good guy to pick his brain and get some advice from.”
Though it was only 16 games, Muller soaked in his experience at the AHL level and used some of the concepts he took from both Montreal, where he spent five years as an assistant, and his short time in Nashville’s training camp.
“It just gave me an opportunity to have my own team and give them their own identity,” Muller said of his short stint in Milwaukee. “It was a great starting block for me.”
Trotz added, “We’re sort of chuckling because we have the same philosophies in a lot of ways. … It will be a really good fit because he’s a really good up-and-coming hockey guy and real sharp guy in terms of the coaching aspect. They are a younger team like we are, so I think he’ll have a really good rapport with them. His communication skills are excellent and I think he’ll do a fabulous job with Carolina.”
When Muller took the job in Carolina, he took over a Hurricanes team that boasted an 8-13-4 record and sat in last place in the Southeast Division. Despite the record, Muller knew right away that Raleigh would be a good place for him.
“I thought a perfect fit for me would be to go to a team with good goaltending and good leaders and far along with their development, and I thought Carolina had a lot of good qualities,” Muller said. “I thought if I was going to take a group like this that is low in the standings, I’m okay with it because it’s a great group to build with.”
Captain Eric Staal approved of the switch to Muller, who Staal said is the right guy to lead the Hurricanes in the right direction.
“He’s a guy that brings a lot of passion, energy and commitment to the game,” said Staal, whose game has improved since Muller took over. “Everyone in here knows his pedigree as a player and worked extremely hard and competed, and he’s bringing that type of attitude to coaching. It’s been good for us. It’s taken a little bit to adjust to his system, but I think the hockey we’ve been playing over the last 10 or so games is something we can build on.”
Since Muller replaced Paul Maurice, the Hurricanes have been a lot more competitive as a team, recording a 6-9-3 record in 18 games.
“We’re in every game; I’d say it’s been two games where our competitive level wasn’t there,” Muller said. “All in all, they’re buying into the system, they play hard and compete. We have to learn that we’re a work in progress, learn from our mistakes and keep on in the right direction.”
Staal, who has been through a mid-season coaching change before in his career, mentioned that the locker room has reacted well to the change and that Muller has their attention.
“Whenever there’s a coaching change, it’s difficult. He came in with the right attitude and let everyone know there is a clean sheet and a new opportunity for everybody,” Staal said. “The energy and attitude he brings is starting to filter down to our guys. Hopefully he’ll be the guy to lead us where we want to go.”
When Muller took the job in Carolina, Staal immediately saw his potential. Other former Admirals and current Hurricanes who played/play for Muller echoed those thoughts and praised his knowledge of the game.
“Any young player that comes into this league, it’s an adjustment,” Staal said. “For Kirk, he’s getting more comfortable every game, every practice, every pre-game meeting. Just the way he sees the game and talks about the game, I think he has a great grasp of the way the game is played right now.”
Said Trotz, “He’s evolving with the game, from a player to an assistant to a head coach. He’s got really good communication skills and some good ideas. He’s a really good listener, in terms of taking in ideas and not being closed-minded.”
Most successful coaches in the NHL are good player’s coaches; they get to know their players and vice versa, and the door is always open for conversation. Muller already has that feature that can sometimes be hard to find.
“He’s very personable,” Smith said. “One of the first things he said to us was if we if we wanted to talk, we could go in and his door was always open. Even on the ice, we could go ask him any question we wanted.”
Hurricanes forward Brandon Sutter added, “He’s good to talk to and he can kind of lighten the mood in the room. It’s been a good change and I think he’s enjoying it here.”
This past year has proven just how much of a commodity Muller is around the NHL. Many teams that pursued him in the summer felt he had great potential, but needed some experience as a head coach. It didn’t take long for the Hurricanes to pounce on Muller once they saw what he was capable of at the AHL ranks.
“It’s been quite the whirlwind!” said Muller, with a chuckle, of his past six months. “Going from the hockey mecca in Montreal for the last five years – with the lifestyle of no privacy and every day is hockey, hockey, hockey – to Milwaukee where you only focus on hockey and spend a lot of hours at the rink putting your own identity into the team and starting from scratch; then going to Raleigh and jumping in right on the first day and playing Florida and the Rangers.
“You tell your players to be versatile and flexible, so I guess you better be if you want to be a coach!”
Photo credit: Jamie Kellner
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