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Canadiens glad to have Kirk Muller back

Associate coach counted on to spark power play in return to Montreal

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens' offseason featured significant player movement, all in an effort to avoid a repeat of what happened to them last season.

As general manager Marc Bergevin said Tuesday, the Canadiens fell flat on their face following the season-ending injury to All-Star goaltender Carey Price on Nov. 25 and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bergevin brought in defenseman Shea Weber and forwards Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov to try to make sure something like that doesn't happen again. But there was another person brought in who might have as big an influence in that regard.

On June 2, the Canadiens hired Kirk Muller as an associate coach to work under Michel Therrien. Muller is a former Canadiens captain who was on the most-recent Montreal team to win the Stanley Cup in 1993, and he previously served as an assistant coach with the Canadiens from 2006-11.

"Coming back a third time," Muller said, "I guess I should know my way around by now."

Most importantly for the Canadiens, Muller is someone who understands how to run a power play, a chronic problem in Montreal ever since he left his assistant coach's job to become coach of Milwaukee in the American Hockey League in 2011-12. He held that job for five months before taking over as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

After two seasons working as an assistant under St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Muller is back to fix a power play that finished 25th in the NHL in each of the past two seasons.

For a team that has finished in the lower half of the League in goals scored for three seasons in a row, Muller's arrival in Montreal could be considered as important as any player Bergevin brought in this summer.

"It's such a great fit," said Therrien, who suggested to Bergevin that he hire Muller. "He fits really well with all the coaching staff, he fits well with the players. He's got great experience and so far the chemistry, it's been really, really good."

Under Muller's watch, St. Louis' power play finished sixth in the League last season and fourth in 2014-15. When he was an assistant coach in Montreal, the Canadiens finished first twice and second once during his five seasons running the power play.

The key to Muller's success as a coach has always been his ability to relate with the players. During his previous stint in Montreal as an assistant under coach Jacques Martin, it was Muller who served as a conduit between the players and the coaching staff, ensuring lines of communication were open and problems were quickly addressed.

That ability to relate to players seemingly hasn't changed, even if Muller, 50, is growing further apart from the players in terms of age.

Video: MTL@WPG: Pacioretty sets up Galchenyuk for nice score

Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty was on the team when Muller was an assistant coach, and the relationship they built then lasted until now. When the Canadiens were going through difficult times last season and Pacioretty was still learning the nuances of being captain in the midst of a storm, he reached out to Muller for advice, even though he was working for the Blues.

"You just naturally have a good relationship with him because of how personable he is, how upbeat he is, how positive he is," Pacioretty said. "It would be impossible to have a bad relationship with Kirk Muller. I can go that far to say that."

After Muller was hired by the Canadiens in June, Therrien suggested he reach out to some of the players he wasn't familiar with to start building a relationship. This is where Muller's arrival could also be crucial to the Canadiens, because that is when center Alex Galchenyuk first got to know him.

Galchenyuk, 23, is primed for a breakout after his first career 30-goal season, one in which he finished with 16 goals in 22 games. This season, when Galchenyuk comes back to the bench after a shift, it will be Muller giving him a pat on the back or correcting mistakes.

"He actually called me in the summer, and right away you could see he's a good guy, an outgoing person," Galchenyuk said. "I've been working with him for a month or so and he's great. He's a big addition to this team and I'm happy to work with him. His mind and the new things he brings, I'll definitely use a lot of it in my game."

It is often said that coaches are only as good as their players make them. But the power play and the continued development of Galchenyuk are two concrete areas in which the impact of Muller's arrival will be visible this season.

The strength of that impact could determine just how far the Canadiens ultimately go.

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