November 28, 2011. It was a day of vast change in the NHL, the day of The Great Southeast Shakeup. Two coaches that had embedded themselves in their teams’ fabric — Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Paul Maurice in Carolina — are gone, replaced by first-time NHL coaches who previously made their marks as players.
Boudreau had guided the Capitals out of mediocrity and into Stanley Cup-favorite status during his 329-game reign as Washington's bench boss. But his outspoken, no-apologies attitude rubbed many the wrong way, and eventually his relationship with the Caps’ Alexes — Ovechkin and Semin — seemed to deteriorate and cost him his job.
Maurice was in his second tenure with Carolina, having earned a three-year contract extension after taking over for Peter Laviolette on Dec. 3, 2008, and leading the Hurricanes to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. But the luster of that run quickly turned to rust when Maurice failed to lead the Canes back to the postseason the next two years and the team again stumbled in this season’s first two months, leading to his dismissal.
In their place come former All-In Hunter, many believe the Capitals are getting a hard-nosed disciplinarian that can right the Washington vessel — and more importantly, steer Ovechkin back to super stardom. He may very well be that man. But the idea that Hunter's on-ice truculence from his playing days will instill fear and thus success in the wayward Caps is a simplistic view, at best. Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller, two players with vastly different reputations as players and no experience as NHL bench bosses.
The Hockey News' Ken Campbell made the mistake of using Hunter's past to stargaze into Washington's future when he ended this column on Boudreau's firing with this line (and video link).
Can Dale Hunter make all that happen? Not sure, but if the Capitals want to know what it’s like when their new coach is angry, they should ask Pierre Turgeon…and perhaps check out this clip.
As for Muller, the Canes seem to be getting one of the NHL's rising coaching stars. For those concerned with his lack of experience, Muller was oftentimes cited as the brains behind the Montreal bench, the X's and O's man during his five-year run as an assistant there. Which means the big question surrounding Muller is, "Can he lead?" His past as an all-effort NHL captain would point to, "Yes, he can."
There is a skeleton in Muller's closet as well — though nothing as harsh as Hunter's past. He was dealt from Montreal, where he was team captain, to the Islanders — coincidentally for Pierre Turgeon, the player Hunter cheapshotted in the aforementioned infamous play. Disappointed in being traded away from the Canadiens, Muller reported to the Isles and almost immediately engaged in a contract dispute with the team that would lead to his departure after just 27 games on Long Island. He bounced around after the trade out of New York (which sent him to Toronto for a 92-game stint), playing for Florida and Dallas. He never regained the offensive prowess that made him a star in Montreal, but with the Stars he evolved into a defensive stopper. But his time on Long Island is arguably the one black mark on an otherwise spotless playing career.
Both jumped in to coaching after their careers were over: Hunter formed a dominant coach and GM tandem with brother Mark with the OHL's London Knights; Muller started off in Canadian university hockey before landing a job as an assistant in Montreal, followed by the 17-game run as the Milwaukee Admirals’ head coach before accepting the job in Carolina.
Both of their resumes landed them jobs Monday. Hunter has seemingly mellowed as a coach. Yes, he has a couple OHL suspensions and fines under his belt, but nothing that raises questions about his ability to handle himself behind an NHL bench. Muller is considered one of the fast-rising, young coaches in the game — funny, since he nearly a year older than Maurice, the man he replaced — but will have to prove that his reputation as a hard-working, intelligent player translates into successful coaching.
Tonight, two vastly different on-ice players start at square one on Southeast Division benches. Despite their pasts — be it as the NHL's notorious No. 2 all-time penalty man or as the one-time Habs captain who was revered for his work ethic and determination — they should be judged as coaches based on what they do starting tonight. No one in the Washington locker room will be scared of Hunter because of something he did on the ice decades ago, and Muller is not going to earn the respect of a roomful of Hurricanes simply because he once had the "C" stitched on his sweater in Montreal.
Tonight, their combined 3,069 NHL games don't mean anything. They both start at zero.