Watching Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller conduct a late-March practice, you would never know his team was a facing an early offseason. He is in full voice, explaining the finer points of gaining the offensive blue line and recognizing when forwards should drive the net.
"There is no hesitation in our game," he yells to the players.
That instruction summed up the second half of the season for the Hurricanes, who improved their puck pursuit and offensive intensity enough to be competitive nearly every night.
For Muller, who took over for Paul Maurice on Nov. 28, that's progress. He inherited an 8-13-4 team that had stumbled through several November starts, bottoming out with a 4-0 loss at Montreal in the middle of the month. By the time general manager Jim Rutherford handed over the keys, Muller promised "baby steps" to get the Hurricanes moving in the right direction.
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In that regard, the new coach has been an unqualified success.
Muller had long been considered an NHL head coach-in-waiting. After five seasons as an assistant in Montreal, he interviewed for the head jobs last summer in Minnesota, Dallas and Ottawa but was passed over -- even though all three teams selected first-timers. One theory behind the near misses involved Muller's personality: Maybe he was too nice of a guy to be the man in charge.
"I thought he was such an enthusiastic, team-oriented person, I didn't know if he would have the patience to be a head coach," said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached Muller for two and a half seasons in Dallas. "He was always such a happy-go-lucky type of guy."
Happy-go-lucky. Muller has heard that characterization before. He rolls his head back and smiles.
"I have to chuckle at that, personally," he says. "When people say I'm easy-going, yeah, my personality is. But when it comes to the hockey part, I'm not all fun and goofing around."
After missing out on the three NHL jobs, Muller made a bold move. He accepted the head coaching job with the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate. Soon after, Carolina came calling. Muller spent a week considering the Hurricanes' offer, but the answer seemed obvious.
"I went right to the nucleus," he said. "I saw Cam Ward. Your No. 1 goaltender has won a Cup. Then you've got Brandon Sutter, Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal. There's a nucleus of guys. Some of them have already won. I knew I would love to go in and build with them. You've got to make sure it's the right fit, or else you're in and out."
Muller immediately installed his own system. The Hurricanes lost four straight to begin the new era, but they soon responded to both Muller's credentials as a player and his message of personal accountability.
"He had a really great career as a player and has won a Cup," forward Jussi Jokinen said. "He's been on the first line, second line, third line and fourth line throughout his career. So he knows how every player feels depending on the role they are playing. If you're not playing big minutes, you're equally as important as Eric Staal."
"He wanted me to be hard-working at practice and hard working at games -- just do that for him so it would make his job easier," Staal said. "So I just focused on that. It didn't happen right away, but slowly things started to come back and the points came and the wins came. It's been a lot of fun since."Building the first bridge to Staal was a good indication of Muller's communication skills.
"I was a captain at 21," said Muller, referring to his days in New Jersey. "It's not easy to come into a room and tell a 32-year-old he's not doing his thing. For me, I feel like I've done it my whole life. I've addressed people all the time. So it's not unnatural for me to do this."
Muller's calm demeanor has been a good fit, even though the team is short on vocal leaders. Staal and alternate captains Sutter and Tim Gleason are quiet personalities, something Muller and Rutherford readily acknowledge. So the new coach doesn't hesitate to ramp up the intensity when necessary.
"I've been vocal a few times. People see it," he said. "But I'm about respect. I don't let things boil over to the point where all of a sudden I lose it. I try to address the guys every day, give them an understanding of what I think is important and what is expected of them. They're either doing it or they're not. There's no surprises."
And just in case anyone mistakes some of that low-key respect, Jokinen is quick to set the record straight.
"If he's not happy, he lets us know," the Finnish forward said. "He's an honest coach. If the team is not playing good, he lets you know that's not acceptable here. [The media] doesn't see that side of him, but he has that side."
"He had a really great career as a player and has won a Cup. He's been on the first line, second line, third line and fourth line throughout his career. So he knows how every player feels depending on the role they are playing. If you're not playing big minutes, you're equally as important as Eric Staal."
-- Hurricanes' forward Jussi Jokinen
While Muller has given the team a more dogged identity on the ice, it is just one step toward a full-fledged fix for the Carolina franchise. The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs five out of six seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. In consecutive summers, they have lost Ray Whitney (2010) and Erik Cole (2011) to free agency. No one has stepped in to fill the offensive void.
But that is an issue for management. Muller knows where he can influence this team, and for now, it begins with Staal. The two men share a unique bond: both have played center, won the Stanley Cup and served as captains. Each knows the expectations of being selected with the second pick in the NHL Draft -- Muller in 1984, Staal in 2003.
"I said to Staal, 'We're in this together,'" Muller explained. "'You're my leader. You're my guy. We've got to work together. I respect you a lot for what you've done. I've been there and I know what you're going through. Why don't we work together here? At the end of the day, if you're my best player, we're in pretty good shape.'"
That easy-going message has taken with the captain. It is the first of many to come.
"But it's my first job, and I don't try to come in and say I've got all the answers," Muller said. "I'm confident we'll get the job done here."