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AHL gamble pays handsomely for Muller in Carolina

Monday, 11.28.2011 / 12:14 PM / NHL Insider

By John Manasso - NHL.com Correspondent

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AHL gamble pays handsomely for Muller in Carolina
Kirk Muller's gamble that the best route for becoming a head coach in the National Hockey League was to leave his role as an NHL assistant and become a head coach in the American Hockey League.

Monday, that gamble paid off handsomely.

After a 17-game apprenticeship in the AHL, with Milwaukee, Muller received the call for which he longed, summoned by the Carolina Hurricanes to replace Paul Maurice, who was relieved of his coaching duties Monday morning.

Poile wouldn't get in Muller's way

Nashville Predators general manager David Poile laughed when asked how he would evaluate Kirk Muller in 17 games as the head coach of the Predators' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.

"He was doing very well," Poile said. "It was great that we had him in the summer with our prospects and our younger players for the first quarter of the season down there. It was great. Unfortunately for us, I wish he would have been there for longer. But, again, his opportunity creates an opportunity for someone else. Ian Herbers (the new coach of Milwaukee) is a beneficiary of that change and we're confident that Ian will do a fine job for us in Milwaukee."

When Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford called asking Poile for permission, Poile said he had no intention of blocking the request.

"I've never -- when we signed Kirk, we signed for two years," Poile said. "That was the commitment. I think we knew full well that he was an excellent NHL coaching prospect, but I think in his mind at the time and our time when we both made the commitment, we felt it would be for the two years. But things changed and had this opportunity. I took it to him. He wanted to do it."

The Predators put a huge emphasis on their development process and so hiring a minor-league coach is not something they do lightly. Poile said Muller's departure is a “good-news, bad-news situation."

"I mean, I never stand in anyone's way from moving up in an opportunity here, which Kirk is certainly moving up into a head coaching position," he said. "On the other hand, it's not most ideal thing for us or our organization to make a change during the middle of the season, but it is what it is."
-- John Manasso
Muller, 45 and an assistant for five seasons with the Montreal Canadiens through the end of last season, finally has now reached his dream of returning to the NHL as a head coach.

This season, Muller led the Milwaukee Admirals, the top farm team of the Nashville Predators, to a 10-6-1 mark.

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford must have gotten a good look at Muller in recent days, as the Canes' top farm team, Charlotte, defeated visiting Milwaukee 3-2 on Saturday and 5-1 on Sunday.

In June, when he was introduced as Milwaukee's coach, Muller explained his decision in a conference call with reporters.

"It's been five years and, like a player, you always want the ball," he said. "You want to be out there in the last minute. I've been on a stage where I've had a great five years of experience. I want to go out and get my own club and be a head coach. I'm going from the NHL down to the AHL. It's a new challenge in a different direction. I'm super excited about it."

Muller was selected No. 2 in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft and played 19 seasons with New Jersey, Montreal, the New York Islanders, Florida and Dallas, totaling 959 points in 1,349 games. He won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993 and played in the All-Star Game six times.

Muller will walk into a team in which he will have experience coaching at least one player: Brandon Sutter. Muller served as head coach of Canada's Under-18 World Championships team in 2006 when Sutter played on it.

Muller inherits a team that has not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009 when it advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing to Pittsburgh. Last season, Carolina lost in its season finale at home to Tampa Bay when a win would have put the team in the playoffs, knocking out the New York Rangers.

The Hurricanes currently sit No. 14 in the conference with 20 points in 25 games, but they remain only five points out of the playoffs and eight behind first-place Florida in the Southeast Division.

The team's biggest issue is slumps by some of the team's biggest stars.

Captain Eric Staal ranks fifth on the team in points with five goals and six assists in 25 games and he holds a minus-17 rating that is the League's worst. Staal has even been moved to the wing from his natural position at center in an attempt to get going.

Goalie Cam Ward, who was an All-Star last season, is 8-10 with a 3.10 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. In comparison, he won 37 games, posted a .923 save percentage and 2.56 GAA in 2010-11.

In addition, the team's top offseason acquisition, defenseman Tomas Kaberle, has played poorly and was a healthy scratch Sunday.

During his five seasons with the Canadiens, Muller worked with the team's penalty-killing unit. He will have to improve Carolina's which ranks No. 21 in the NHL, killing only 80.2 percent of its chances.

"My job and role in Montreal were working with the special teams the last five years," Muller said in June. "Being out there and working with the players one-on-one in the daily situations that occur. That part will not change much when I go to Milwaukee. I'm a big believer that the new generation of players needs to be coached today."

During the offseason, Muller had interviewed for the head jobs in Dallas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ottawa. He said those interviews were "a great experience," but noted the trend of NHL assistants having to go to the minors to make their bones, so to speak. He cited the recent examples of Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh), Mike Yeo (Minnesota), and Glen Gulutzan (Dallas).

"Yeah, for sure," Muller said of the existence of the trend. "It does go in different trends over a period of time. Obviously, like players, the American Hockey League is a great league, it's a great developing league for players. It's a great developing stage for coaches and, for me, I think it's a great opportunity to put my stamp on a team, to have your own team and get an identity of what type of team you'd like to have.

"You can do a lot of work as assistant coach, but at the end of the day, you don't always have the final say in some things and you might have your vision of stuff, so until you have the full rein of hockey club and go through that whole process... It's a great stepping stone and a great spot to really develop to be a good coach to lead into the NHL eventually."

Muller breaks the trend of coaches for the Hartford Whalers/Hurricanes, as he is the first one since current Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren in 1995-96 when the franchise still played in Hartford to have been a long-time NHL player. Maurice never played in the NHL and Peter Laviolette, who guided the franchise to the Cup in '06, played only 12 games in the NHL.

When he was hired to coach Milwaukee in June, Muller said he had been proactive about calling general managers about vacant coaching positions and when those positions were filled, he moved his attention to the AHL.

Monday, that move proved to be the wisest course of action as it landed him the NHL job he has coveted for the past six years.


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