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Catching Up with Kirk Muller

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes sat down with Canes head coach Kirk Muller before the Thanksgiving holiday. We touched on a number of topics, including Muller’s playing days, how he’s spent his recent downtime, what he’s liked in Charlotte and looking ahead to a possible shortened season.

Michael Smith
Follow on Twitter You’re approaching your first-year anniversary in coaching. What stands out to you most from your first months as a head coach in the NHL?

Kirk Muller: I really feel good about the culture of the group. I’m a big believer that the room is for the guys – it’s their time. It’s not about the coaches because we’ve had our moments. I think we have a good, bonding group right now. If anything, I feel good that we’re on the right track of everyone feeling like they’re excited about the team. I get a sense that the fans are excited about the team, too. When someone says, "Hey, I like the way the guys are competing and playing with energy." That’s a good feeling. I have to imagine there’s a level of pressure that exists as a first-year coach in the NHL, especially one who comes in mid-season. Did you ever feel any of that?

Muller: I didn’t feel the pressure. I think the five years being in Montreal as an assistant coach, you’re really in the hot seat, even though you’re not the head coach. Everything you do is evaluated microscopically. I think it was really a great way to prepare for being a head coach. The detail of every decision you made got analyzed, so it really made you concentrate on the details of every scenario. I worked with [Guy] Carbonneau, who I think is one of the smartest hockey players I’ve ever played with, and Jacques Martin was one of the most experienced, successful coaches. I learned a lot, and I took all that in.

I don’t think you can underestimate the staff I have here, either. We have a good, knowledgeable group here. I just wanted to bring some energy and excitement in. I thought the guys were great in responding, and they played hard. A lot of players say their favorite place to play on the road is Montreal. You played there. What makes that atmosphere so unique?

Muller: It’s hard not to get caught up in the passion. You can call it passion, religion or whatever. It’s the sport there that really ties together that city, province and people across the country. Soccer teams in Europe have it. The Yankees have it. Certain organizations have that history. As a visiting guy, when you walk into Montreal, it doesn’t start at the rink. If you walk the streets of Montreal on a Saturday, you get the buzz of the hockey game that night. You’re right downtown, so it starts right then. By the time you get to the rink, it’s sold out and it’s just such a different feeling and culture in there. You feel like you’re playing in front of history. You won a Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. Nearly 20 years later, how special is it still to see your name on the Cup?

Muller: As a kid, you dream of playing in the NHL and winning a Stanley Cup. I started in [New] Jersey. It was my seventh year, and I didn’t know how long I was going to play in the NHL. At times, you felt like you were pretty far away (from winning). And then all of a sudden, I was in Montreal and we won the Cup. The biggest thing I remember is that, wow, this is a lifetime dream. You really appreciate it.

Winning it in Montreal was special because I had all my family there, and it’s fun to win it at home if you can. Tying that all in, it was great because that team was similar to this one in Carolina where we weren’t projected to win the Cup, but we had a really good group of guys. We played hard for each other and surprised some teams, and things fell into place. And as a coach, being there and winning it, does that help you relate to the guys in the locker room now who are still searching for the ultimate prize?

Muller: I’ve always said that it’s like a celebrity who owns a restaurant. At first, if the food and service isn’t good, people aren’t going to go back. I think when you walk in (as a coach who has played), you have credibility at the beginning, but at the end of the day, you have to do the right things as a coach.

In my career, I was a high draft pick, I was a franchise-type player in Jersey, I was a first-line guy, I was a second-line guy, third, fourth, left-winger, penalty killer, PP, healthy scratch – so I think that part, more than the fact that I was on a Stanley Cup-winning team, has really helped prepare me for coaching. I can relate to the fourth-line guy as much as the stars of the team. Rod Brind’Amour said that, for him, the appeal of coaching was that it was the “next best thing” to playing. What appeals to you about coaching?

Muller: We’re right here on the ground level with them. You’re on the bench with them. There’s nothing like playing, but to be here with the guys and in the room, seeing them progress, being in the day-to-day grind of the season of the ups and the downs and all that, it’s a fun experience. Having a group of guys that I have here: Roddy Brind’Amour – who I have a lot of respect for – Dave Lewis, Johnny MacLean, Greg Stefan. Sitting around with really good, knowledgeable hockey people, challenging each other, picking each others’ brains, it’s a lot of fun for us with the group we’ve put together. Have you picked up any new hobbies in your downtime?

Muller: I wouldn’t say it’s new, but I’ve finally gotten to play some golf. I’ve had the chance to play a lot of the courses around here. The last few years with the moves I’ve had to make, I haven’t golfed that much, so I’ve had the chance to do it a little more now. Do you like golf?

Muller: Yeah, yeah. Obviously, I need some improvement, but I’ve had the chance to do it a little more now. You have a daughter who just started at NC State. How is that going?

Muller: She’s loving it. We went to a football game. I got introduced to the tailgating and the barbecuing around here. That was cool. I also toured Duke’s basketball facilities. And, as everyone knows, I was up in Canada with my sister passing away. You were saying that you wanted to take the All-Star break to explore the state. Have you gotten the chance to do that yet?

Muller: Yeah, we went down to the beach on Labor Day weekend. Tried surfing for the first time. My whole family did it. My daughters were down from university. So we did the family trip down there for the weekend. We rented a place, and it had boards. We had a blast. That was a new thing. So you’ve gotten the chance to spend some quality time with the family, something you really couldn’t do in-season.

Muller: Yeah, caught some minor hockey games back in Canada with my nephew. I haven’t seen him play before because I’m always on the road. Caught some major-junior A games back home. Just getting a different look at hockey at different levels. You’ve been down to Charlotte a number of times, too, yes?

Muller: I went down for training camp, and then I went down for the four home games after their road trip, so that was good. Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels implemented a new system this season to better mirror the one you run here. How much of a hand did you have in that this summer?

Muller: At the end of the year, when the organization didn’t make the playoffs both here and there, you want to look at ways to get better. I think all of us were feeling that way, and we felt like we had a lot of young guys in Charlotte that were knocking on the door. We thought the best thing would be to get a system down there that is similar to what we’re doing here for it to be a quicker transition; it makes sense, as a lot of organizations do it. So we sat down, we went over our system here and Jeff was open to it. Being a coach in the minors too, I know that you want to have your flexibility and creativity, but he bought into it. We went over tapes, and it worked out well. And it seems to be translating statistics-wise and in the standings down there, as well. Has anyone in particular stood out to you?

Muller: Faulk’s attitude has been great to go down and do all that. Dan Ellis has done a great job. He’s been a great addition coming in with his experience and play in net. Bobby Sanguinetti has done what we’re hoping for in getting confidence and growing to be available to play here. Up front, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and Chris Terry I like a lot. Zac Dalpe’s coming along now; his skating fits the system well. Jeremy Welsh – it’s a great learning curve for him. It’s a big step from college, but he’s getting better. Brett Sutter has really worked hard all summer on his skating, and he’s off to a great start. You could kind of go on. Tim Wallace has been a good, steady pick-up who’s capable of playing at this level. A lot of good things from those guys. You were slated to have a pretty busy training camp with eight games, five of which were going to be played on consecutive nights. It seems like this was set up to be big and competitive.

Muller: Yeah, I really wanted to get the message sent to the guys that I don’t really care about the past in terms of whether you feel like you’ve had your chance or not. Our message to them at camp (in Charlotte) was: you have an opportunity to start fresh here; get off to good starts, and we’ll evaluate it. Had we started our camp, I wanted it to be a camp where first of all, I could experiment with the [new players], where the right combinations were and giving the kids the opportunity to show what they got. I was really looking forward to camp for those reasons. We don’t know the details, but in the event of a shortened season, we’re looking at a truncated training camp. What kind of challenges will this present?

Muller: It will be more challenging for teams that have new people. On paper, it always looks good, but what’s going to work is different. So, that part will be a little tougher because you’re kind of gambling on what you think might work. Some teams will have an edge because all their guys will be back. With the quick jump into regular-season play, do you have a feeling the first few weeks might be kind of sloppy?

Muller: I’m sure. Conditioning level will be a little off on some guys. Whether you’re in good shape or not, to jump in and play that many games right off the hop, fatigue will kick in. Because of the amount of games that will probably happen, you probably won’t practice much. So there won’t be much of an opportunity to work in practice time. You look out West, with the travel they have, they won’t have much practice time at all, more so than the Eastern teams, even. Everyone’s going to face it, but it’s going to change the dynamics. The fourth line is going to be more important than it is a normal regular season because you’re going to need three extra bodies that can play. You played in the shortened season in 1994-95. As a player, what was that like?

Muller: Depth is going to be big. Unfortunately, injuries will be a big part of the season, so depth is going to be really valuable. That season was tough physically. You did nothing but play hockey.

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