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Canes Country Round Table, Vol. One: Kirk Muller

Each of the Canes Country staff chime in with what we would do regarding the head coach question.

Will Kirk Muller be back to welcome the 2014 draft pick of the Hurricanes?
Will Kirk Muller be back to welcome the 2014 draft pick of the Hurricanes?
Bruce Bennett

(This is number one in a series of round table discussions we will have at Canes Country this offseason.)

The Carolina Hurricanes have some major decisions to make.  One of them is whether or not to bring back head coach Kirk Muller for another season behind the bench.  Muller has one more year left on his contract, but has yet to have an official vote of confidence from management.

Last week we ran a poll here on the blog asking for reader feedback and we got plenty of it.  Out of over 800 respondents, 39% supported the coach's return, in one way or the other, while 57% want him replaced.

There is similar discord between the contributors of the blog.

I asked our staff the following question and this is what they came up with.  "If you were Carolina GM, would you bring Kirk Muller back for next season, and if so, why?  If not, who would you hire to replace him?"

First up will be the Muller supporters:

Brian LeBlanc - Editor

There was a time, not long ago, when the Canes hired the hottest coaching prospect on the market.  Since then, his star has dimmed considerably, but I would argue that Kirk Muller should be given another chance to start next season.

We all know that the Canes are going to go through a rather significant upheaval this offseason.  Plenty of players are on the trading block, a new general manager is likely to take the reins, and the team is likely to look completely different next season.  Why not give Muller a chance to have perhaps a bit more input on player transactions this offseason then see what he does with a group of players that might be assembled with a different philosophy?

We don't have any idea what Ron Francis, or whoever takes over when Jim Rutherford retires, has in his mind for what the team should look like.  But how many times have we heard Rutherford pencil in players he acquires on specific lines before they put on a Hurricanes sweater? How often have we heard about puck-moving defensemen?  What if - and this is exaggerating for effect - Muller has no interest in Rutherford's concept of puck-moving defensemen and was always stuck with a group of players that he never really wanted in the first place?  When the general manager is assembling a roster from a podium before the players have even practiced together, that's a significant handcuff on the head coach, no?

Now, that's not to say that Muller is beyond criticism.  The power play has been abysmal, to be sure.  But, again, it's an easy line to draw to the type of players that Muller has been given.  Should he have made the power play better, given his pedigree?  Absolutely, and there's no reason to argue the contrary.  But the types of players he was using on the Canes' power play over the last couple of years are nothing like what he had in Montreal, when he had P.K. Subban running the point and three undersized forwards (Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty) sneaking into empty spaces and converting.  It can't be coincidental that the Canes' top power-play producer, the 5'11" Jeff Skinner, fits into the same mold.

If anything, I would make the argument that Rutherford was building a team designed for Paul Maurice to coach, then handing it to Muller and saying "here, make it work." That's not fair to Muller, nor is it fair to the players.  With nearly $20 million in cap space for next season, Muller deserves a chance to have more input on the roster, and he deserves to keep his job to start next season with a group of players that, hopefully, he has a bit more input on assembling.


Matt Krombach - Contributor (Intern)

Kirk Muller said his system works, and he's determined on proving that it does.  This season has had many ups and downs without any doubt. Those downs included head scratching losses to teams like the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres.  However, there have been the highs of beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and St. Louis Blues.  So in retrospect, it has worked, just not enough.

Muller should finish his final year on his contract or at least give him a fighting chance and give him the start of next season.  Surely he knows he knows he is on the hot seat. That being the case, Muller must have some idea that his system is flawed with the turnout of this season even if Peter Karmanos wants to blame it on the goaltender injury issue that occurred at the beginning of the season.  He has parts of his system that work, but finding the consistency and not reverting back to what hasn't worked is very key for him to be able to keep his job past December.  So if he's sure his system works, he needs to do some advanced tweaking during the offseason.

In addition, with many personnel changes expected this offseason including the expected step down from GM by Jim Rutherford, it might be in the organizations best interest to keep the head coach around for a smoother transition and start to rebuilding.  We have no idea what anticipated GM Ron Francis or whomever might take Rutherford's place may have up his sleeve.  It could be possible that whatever additions or changes made within the roster could be beneficial to Muller's system.


The Muller detractors:

Cory Lavalette - Editor

When the Carolina Hurricanes hired Kirk Muller to replace Paul Maurice in late 2011, he was considered one of the up-and-coming coaching stars in the league. He earned that distinction due to both his accomplishments as a player and also his success as a longtime assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, specifically helping with Habs' special teams. There were a couple red flags: not only did Muller have nearly no head coaching experience -- he had taken the head coaching job with the Milwaukee Admirals -- Nashville's AHL affiliate at the beginning of the 2011-12 season -- but rumors swirled that he came across as aloof in interviews for other coaching openings.

So should Muller stay? No, not if we base it on the above perceptions. Muller failed to right Carolina's shaky special teams, and he also proved to lack the experience to right the Hurricanes' ship. His "aw shucks" post game interviews fed the belief that Muller was in over his head, and despite Jim Rutherford's solid postseason moves -- namely the rebuilt defense and addition of Anton Khudobin -- Muller's squad were again out of the playoff picture relatively early. The Hurricanes can't afford another season that is essentially over before April, and it might be too late if the front office waits until the team to struggle in October to make a move. 

Who should Carolina look to? If they want experience, both Barry Trotz and Ron Wilson are available. Neither is a slam-dunk must hire, but both are proven behind the bench. Within the organization, Plymouth Whalers GM/coach Mike Vellucci's name has been mentioned as a possibility in Raleigh, but perhaps he's more likely to land a front office job (assistant GM to expected GM Ron Francis) than as bench boss. Don't rule out current Adirondack Phantoms head coach Terry Murray, who has a lot of experience running an NHL squad but will be 64 when next season begins.

In the end, I think you make a run at Trotz — who has never had the kind of scoring talent with Nashville that he would with Carolina — and hope a fresh start for both him and the Hurricanes’ core will equal success in 2014-15. If Pittsburgh parts with Dan Bylsma after the year, he should become the top target.


Jeff Berrier (PackPride17) - Contributor

My answer is no, I would not bring back Kirk Muller.  This was going to be the year, where Muller had a full training camp to instill his system and he would get the Canes back to the postseason.  But it’s mid-April and yet again the Canes have already packed up their gear and many are still wondering what exactly Carolina’s/Muller’s system is.  The players must take some responsibility for their performance, but I don’t believe Muller’s game plan ever put them in position to maximize their abilities.  Only one regular (Skinner) actually showed somewhat significant improvement over the prior season, while more than a couple showed a dramatic decrease in production.  And over the past two seasons, Muller took two good, productive fan favorites and rode them out of town, only to see them have instant success with their new team.  I just don’t believe his style is what this team needs and it might have been a little too early for him to get a NHL head coaching job.

In my opinion, the leading candidate to replace Muller should be Kevin Dineen.  Dineen is a fiery, aggressive coach that will push his players to be better and isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers.  But at the same time, former players speak highly of him and he has had some success at every level he’s coached.  He spent six seasons in the AHL, leading his team to two division titles and five playoff appearances.  He also spent two + seasons with the Florida Panthers, leading them to a Southeast Division title in 11/12, their first playoff appearance since the 99/00 season.  In his two full seasons with the Panthers, his team’s PP ranked in the top 7 both years and combined to have a 19.2% success rate.  Dineen also has some experience with the Whalers/Hurricanes organization and recently coach the Canadian women to gold in Sochi.  I think his style and experience, along with some other personnel moves, is just what this team needs to get back in the playoffs.


Jamie Kellner - Phoblographer - Editor

My first reaction when you asked the question:

Unlike many successful teams, the Hurricanes are not blessed with great depth of talent. That is not on the head coach. But it is on the coach to optimize the talents of the players that he is given, and I don't think this coach has done that. It's my view that a substantial subset of the talent has underperformed to its skill set. Not only that, but there are far too many players that over the years I respected for their character and commitment to the game that don't appear to mesh with what this particular coach brought to the table. But even more disturbing is I see no improvement year-over-year in results despite what appears to be an upgrade in personnel, and there's no accountability to acknowledge real holes in the team's performance nor a coherent plan to correct them, except with platitudes that the system is working and the team just needs to buy into it, work harder, play the right way, and get hurt less. Tweaks and patience.

I thought Kirk Muller was a smart hire. From what I've seen he seems a great guy. I wanted this to work so badly, but I don't see evidence that it will. Not at this time. Not with this group.

As far as a replacement, what I would really rather see in place first is a clear direction, from the top of the organization down, of what it means to be part of the culture that is Hurricanes Hockey, and for all downstream decisions to be made with that culture in mind, starting from ownership to management to scouting to coaching and to player personnel.

But if I have throw a name out there, I guess it wouldn't hurt to see the team strike a little more fear in its opponents. Maybe this guy would fit the pedigree ;)


Bob Wage - Editing Manager

I am not going to repeat what has already been said above, because I agree with much of what Cory, Jeff, and Jamie said.  Muller admitted himself that part of his job is to get the most out of his players and he has not accomplished that, for many on the team.

The biggest reason that I want to see change though is because I see little hope for improvement next year.  Why should next season be any different than the last three?  I don't see it.  To just assume that with a healthy lineup, all will be well next season, is a bad assumption.

The team cannot afford to risk another slow start next season, then bring in a new guy mid-stream, and then rinse and repeat all over again.

In my opinion, this team needs a new direction and a new voice right now.  This has nothing to do with Kirk Muller and what is fair, or right and wrong, or how good of a coach he may or may not be.  This is all about what is best for the Carolina Hurricanes and I think they need a new start.

I would interview the folk mentioned above but there are a couple of others I would add to the list.

Davis Payne - Payne coached the St. Louis Blues for parts of three seasons, (a total of 137 games), and was fired after a 6-7-0 start in 2011, then replaced by Ken Hitchcock.  He did not make the playoffs in his short stay, but has a .544 NHL winning percentage.  He was hired by the Los Angeles Kings the next season and has been an assistant to Darryl Sutter ever since.  I would check this guy out.  He might not have gotten a fair shake in St. Louis because they had a chance to hire Hitchcock and jumped on it.

Tony Granato -   This guy was the ultimate company man in Colorado for years.  He stepped in after Bob Hartley was fired and led the Avs to two consecutive seasons in the playoffs, but was demoted to assistant again when they brought in Joel Quenneville.  After Quenneville was fired, Granato took over again but was fired after a losing season in 2009.  He was then hired by the Pens and has been Dan Bylsma's assistant since then.  He has a lifetime .560 NHL winning percentage.  For those of you wanting Bylsma, he could be the next best thing.

Marc Crawford - This would be a controversial hiring if the team went this way, but this guy has a ton of experience and has a lifetime .566 NHL winning percentage over a 15 year coaching career.  Crawford is known as the coach who told his players (Canucks) to retaliate against the Avs and was involved in the Todd Bertuzzi - Steve Moore lawsuit.  Last season he coached a Swiss team, so he would be worth a phone call and an interview.