In his first major move of the offseason, Marc Bergevin announced on Thursday evening that the team would be bringing in a new associate coach for the 2016-17 campaign. While most newcomers to the organization need time to transition to life in Montreal, the Canadiens’ latest acquisition should be able to step in a little more seamlessly than most.
After a discussion with his boss in St. Louis, Muller was given the green light to speak with interested teams about potential openings around the league. Despite having had a few chats with franchises with current head coaching vacancies, Muller instead jumped at the chance to return to his first NHL coaching home when Michel Therrien came calling.
“I was never a free agent as a hockey player on July 1; now I know what they go through,” joked Muller, who kicked off his NHL coaching career behind the Habs bench under Guy Carbonneau. “Right away with what [Michel] was looking for, he just made me feel so excited about him wanting me to come work with him and the staff and what they’re doing there. I loved Montreal as a player and a coach, and I had two great experiences. My heart is in Montreal. We’re from the Kingston area and my daughter just spent 10 years in Montreal. For us, it’s almost like coming home.”
After spending four years in Montreal as a player, helping the team win the Stanley Cup in 1993 before being named captain in 1994, Muller joined the Canadiens’ coaching staff in 2006-07 alongside his former teammate, where he stayed until moving to the Hurricanes’ organization in 2011. He’s spent the last two years continuing his apprenticeship under Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis, and the two helped lead the Blues to the Western Conference finals this spring.
Despite his success in the Gateway City, Muller knew he was ready for a new challenge in his old stomping grounds.
“Right away I could tell in [Michel’s] voice that he really believes in this group. You could see that he has the positive attitude that it was a tough year this year, but the key is to look at the team when they were at their best and they were winning. We talked about the style they played and the way the game is going and other positives,” explained Muller, whose first coaching gig was as the head coach of the Queen’s University Golden Gaels. “The biggest thing is when he said he wanted to opportunity to talk to me and see if we could work together. I see this with Marc already, too, their confidence in being open to working with other people and knowing that strength in a staff and the people you work with is so good for everybody.
“He made it very clear that he wants me to come and team up with him and the rest of the guys,” he added. “There’s a part of my personality that I think will work great with him and there’s stuff I can learn from him. If you look at the staffs that are put together in the NHL, it’s not about one guy. It’s demanding; there’s a lot of work and time put in. Michel’s ability to delegate and give everyone responsibilities is what makes it a fun challenge.”
In addition to being tasked with working with the team’s crop of forwards, Muller will also take over the team’s power play reins in his new role as associate coach. There’s no denying his previous power play prowess, having led the Canadiens to the top of the league in that category twice in his five years as an assistant in Montreal (2006-07, 22.8%; 2007-08, 24.1%) in addition to finishing second in the league with the man advantage in 2009-10 (21.8%). The former second-overall draft pick was no slouch in scoring on the PP during his playing days, either, having racked up 134 goals and 310 points on the power play during his 19-year NHL career.
“Kirk is a great communicator,” stressed Therrien, who confirmed that no coaches would be leaving with Muller’s arrival, although some responsibilities would be shifted heading into the coming campaign. “I also look at his leadership qualities. He knows the organization. He was a captain and he won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens. To Marc and I, that was very important. The fact that he’s had a lot of success running the power play in the past was important. We aren’t hiding the fact that our power play struggled last year. When we had the opportunity to bring in someone like Kirk, who’s had success and who can adapt and who has worked within different systems, that to me made him an ideal candidate.”
Muller’s Midas touch on the power play extended into his time under Hitchcock in St. Louis, where he lead the Blues to sixth (21.5%) and fourth (22.3%) in the league in that category, respectively, over the last two seasons.
“I want to sit down with Michel and his staff and dig in deep the personnel. Like Michel said, it’s about sharing ideas amongst all of us,” confirmed Muller. “In today’s game, the common denominator with successful teams on the PP is that they have guys who are willing to be a net presence. There’s lots of movement, guys who like moving on the outside and have a shooting mentality. We have several options to attack from all areas and can have all five guys very involved. The personnel is there and it’s our responsibility to find the strengths of the guys, and work together to come up with positive results.”
A prototypical player’s coach, Muller will also be able to help bring out the best in the Canadiens’ crop of young leaders and budding superstars. He knows a thing or two about handling pressure and dealing with sky-high expectations, having arrived in Montreal in 1991 in exchange for Stephane Richer, who had racked up a combined 82 goals over the two previous seasons. He’s also already worked with seven players on the current roster, including four of the team’s five assistant captains in addition to All-World netminder, Carey Price.
“I know them from when they first broke into the NHL; I was there with them. I already know a good nucleus of the guys and they’re coming into their own now,” he explained. “That part of it excites me. If you look at the two teams that are still playing right now, the game is so fast. You need speed and quickness. You have a lot of guys in the organization who are fit for the type of game that’s being played right now.”
The former Habs captain will also be able to act as a sounding board for Max Pacioretty, who was named the 29th captain in franchise history last September.
“Experience certainly helps anyone in our game. Having gone through it, hopefully I can, more than anything, listen to him and see where the concerns are, if any,” mentioned Muller, who divulged that he had been taking French courses and working with a tutor during his time as captain before being traded to the Islanders in April 1995. “In today’s game, it’s not about one person anymore. More and more, what you see now is a real bond of a group of guys. What’s important is building the strength of the room and everyone believing in it and growing together and everyone knowing that we’re all in this together.
“When you have that, I think it takes the pressure off one guy to feel like he has to be ‘the’ leader,” he continued. “I think Patch just has to go out and have fun and be himself. It was a tough year for him. You lose a couple of guys health-wise and it was a tough year as a team and that’s a real tough way to start as a captain. I believe that we’re going to have a good team and a good group. Right away, that will be what will make it easier with Patch and he’ll feel more comfortable.”
About to work with his fourth head coach in Montreal after having previously spent time under Carbonneau, Bob Gainey, and Jacques Martin, Muller is looking forward to coming back to the Bell Centre for some chalk talk with Therrien as soon as possible.
“I’m excited to go over the Xs and Os of the system and what they like,” said Muller. “Working with Michel and the staff, and working with the power play and the forwards fulfills me right now and I’m excited about it.
“Everyone knows I love Montreal. I’ve had great experiences with the organization. It is top notch, first-class, from Geoff Molson down,” he added. “I’m just really excited that I have an opportunity where they want me back for a third time.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
Kirk Muller joins the Canadiens as associate coach