Kirk Muller was a Stanley Cup winner as a player, so he knows what it takes to get to the top. Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford hopes that he can take the Canes back to that summit.
Muller, 45, was introduced Monday afternoon as the third head coach since the Hurricanes moved to North Carolina in 1997. Rutherford said that after five years serving as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens and two months as the head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals, the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators, Muller is prepared and ready to take over in Raleigh.
"[Muller] falls in the mold of the Brind'Amours and the Francises, with the great character and leadership qualities," said Rutherford. "He's a very good communicator. We feel that he is well-prepared and very well suited for the type of team we're trying to build."Muller's comments to the media sounded very similar to those of another coach who was brought in eight years ago, also to replace Paul Maurice. "I believe in accountability," said Muller, echoing Peter Laviolette. "I believe that it's a tough league. You have to work hard. I think that if everyone's accountable to each other, everyone buys into the system, it's amazing what you can accomplish."
Rutherford said that while he has been thinking about the possibility of a coaching change for about a month, the debacle in Montreal on November 16 was the final straw and made his mind up for him that a change needed to be made. All along, though, Muller was at the top of the Canes' list, and Rutherford made a point to thank David Poile and the Nashville Predators for allowing Muller to leave his job in Milwaukee to take the reins in Raleigh.
And perhaps an outsider is exactly what the Canes need at this point, five points out of the playoffs with 57 games remaining.
Rutherford, ever the optimist, is a long way from declaring the season over, and said that he thinks Muller can get them on a roll similar to the one that saw the Canes head to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009, five months after Maurice was hired. "As bad as we've been the last five or six weeks," he said, "we aren't far out from being in the thick of things."
Muller was quick to jump to the defense of the beleaguered Eric Staal, who like Muller was a high draft pick and had the burden of a team's captaincy placed on him at a young age. "Everyone's human," he said. "[Staal] is a workhorse. He has proven that he can be one of the elite players in the game."
The obvious question on everyone's mind is what happens now with Jeff Daniels, who was presumed to be the heir apparent to the Canes' head coaching position and now finds himself still in Charlotte while the coach he beat in consecutive games is not only now an NHL coach, but the coach of his team's parent franchise. Rutherford said that this was actually a reflection on the job Daniels has done in his three-plus years at the helm of the Canes' AHL affiliate.
Daniels "is prepared to be a head coach," said Rutherford. It was the team's belief, though, that moving him to Raleigh would disrupt the good development already taking place in Charlotte, and the team was not willing to sacrifice that development to move Daniels up the ladder.
For his part, Muller sidestepped the issue of what he expects from the young players who beat his team twice in two nights. He did say, though, that he was "impressed with [the Checkers] at the speed they play and the tempo with which they move."
Rutherford fired a shot across the bow of the Hurricanes' locker room at one point, openly admitting that the team has not come together as they had hoped when the season began. "This group hasn't yet wanted to win at all costs," said the Canes' GM, who also repeated what he has said recently about looking to trade a defenseman for a forward or two. That said, Rutherford made a point of stating his satisfaction with the rest of the coaching staff, and particularly singled out Dave Lewis as a good role model for Muller, who has known Lewis for many years.
Muller, however, already has things on his mind other than what will happen when the Canes face one of his former teams, the Florida Panthers, tomorrow night at the RBC Center in his NHL head-coaching debut.
"I have a daughter that's graduating from high school this year," Muller said. "She's already now looking at schools in Carolina."