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Carolina opportunity has Muller raring to go

by Kurt Dusterberg
As he fielded questions during his first press conference as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Kirk Muller displayed all the excitement of a man who had just won a lottery jackpot.

His new job promised to be "exciting" and "fun" — words he leaned on over and over again. Each answer gave him a new reason to smile.

It wasn't just a new job for Muller, it was his first as an NHL head coach. Carolina named the 45-year-old to succeed Paul Maurice, who was fired Monday morning. After more than 1,100 regular-season games as a player, Muller had put in his apprenticeship years in the coaching ranks, first with Queens University in Canada, followed by five seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens. This season, Muller opted for a head coaching job with the American Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators affiliate.

Firing Maurice again no easier for GM

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It's never easy to fire someone — even less so when the guy taking the fall is your friend.

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and recently fired coach Paul Maurice have know each other for more than 25 years. Back in the 1980s, Rutherford was an executive with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, where Maurice was a budding defenseman.

In 1995, Rutherford named Maurice head coach of the Hartford Whalers at the age of 28, a tenure that lasted until he was let go in Carolina in 2004. The GM brought his protege back to coach in 2008. On Monday, he fired Maurice for a second time. In between, the two men reached the Stanley Cup Finals together in 2002 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.

When it came time to make a change recently, Rutherford set about the delicate task of finding a new head coach while allowing Maurice to keep his professional dignity.

"Paul didn't get let in on everything that was going on," Rutherford said. "When you go through this process and you know the team is not doing as well as it should, Paul was certainly understanding of what the situation was."

As the Hurricanes suffered through a 3-9-2 stretch, there were times when Maurice sensed his tenure with the team could end at any moment. After a sluggish 3-2 win against Toronto on Nov. 20, a very tense Maurice let his guard down during his postgame press conference long enough to share his trademark wit.

Asked if the win over the Maple Leafs might have bought him a little time, Maurice smiled and said, "I get to get on the plane," referring to the next night's game in Philadelphia. Still with a thin smile, he added, "You don't assume anything. Don't answer your phone and follow your routine."

Maurice followed that routine all the way through his Monday dismissal, the night after a 4-3 loss at Ottawa. He kept to his task, even with some clear hints from his friend and boss.

"I had a couple brief conversations with him recently as to where the team was and what that meant, without directly saying what it meant," Rutherford admitted. "I think there was a bit of a due process."

Having made the separation once before, there was at least some familiarity with the awkward moment of breaking the news.

"It was different this time, though," the GM said. "The last time (in 2004), it was his first time (being fired). This time, he was more of a veteran type who understood it better."

Rutherford acknowledged some responsibility for the team's early season woes too. With the fourth lowest payroll in the League, he knew there was little margin for error with his five free-agent signings in July, a group led by struggling defenseman Tomas Kaberle.

"Maybe I didn't bring in the right players," he said. "But you don't know that when you go into free agency, and we're dealing with the second and third tier of the free-agent group".

With the uneasy dealings of swapping coaches behind him, Rutherford will put fresh emphasis on finding a way to make the Hurricanes' players accountable.

"When you talk about team togetherness, it's the responsibility of the coach, the captain, and then the players," he said. "The players have a responsibility for get-togethers and feeling good about each other and playing hard for each other. It doesn't boil down to one person. But the head coach is the leader of the pack."

And just like the last time he turned his coach loose, Rutherford will wait for the emotions to settle. And when the time is right, his friend will pick up the phone to chat.

-- Kurt Dusterburg
"It's been fun," Muller said of his coaching experience. "You're learning every day, just like we did as players. That's all prepared me to join Carolina and come in for a first opportunity to coach in the NHL. It's exciting and fun and I'm anxious to get to work."

The job won't be easy. The Hurricanes have struggled badly through 25 games, posting an 8-13-4 mark. Muller had not met the Carolina players as of Monday evening, but he has a feel for the team he inherits.

"I see an organization that has the skill, and it's a fast team," said Muller, who scored 357 goals in his 19-year NHL career. "I think that's important the way the game is played today. You've got great goaltending, great guys down the middle. You've got a group of players who have been drafted and brought here because of the way the game is played today."

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford first began pursuing a new coach after a Nov. 16 loss at Montreal, one he called "totally unacceptable." He considered several candidates initially, including the Hurricanes' own head coach in the AHL, Charlotte's Jeff Daniels. But after seven to 10 days of discussions with Muller, Rutherford determined that he was "clearly the number one choice." The Carolina GM was able to see Muller in action during the weekend as Milwaukee played a two-game set in Charlotte.

"At the end of the process,  I really wanted to bring somebody in who had ideas from another organization," Rutherford said. "Based on the information I got on what he did in Montreal — he did a lot of the coaching there — I really felt he was a good fit for us."

One issue hovering over the Hurricanes this season is the dreadful start of Eric Staal. He has just 11 points in the first 25 games, with only two even-strength goals and is a League-worst minus-17.

"We just assume some of these star players have all the answers," Muller said. "Sometimes they need someone there for them to chat with and get some things out of them. He's young, he's big, he can skate. He's got all the skills and he's proven it before. I think there's a lot of hockey left in him."

Carolina management is hoping that's true with the rest of the roster as well. Rutherford brought in five new players during the summer. Their impact has been minimal, although he didn't blame the newcomers.

"When you put a group of guys together at the start of the season, you watch to see the team come together and gel," Rutherford said. "Some teams do, and some teams don't. At this point in time, this team hasn't.

"That's what we will see here … can Kirk pull these guys together and get them to step their game up? If he can, that's good for this group. If it doesn't, then we have a lot more work to do and we have to change guys out."

Muller will begin addressing the issues at Tuesday's morning skate, prior to a home game with the Florida Panthers.

"You've got to work hard and play for each other," said Muller. "If everyone's not on board in a team sport, it's pretty hard to do well. That's the most important thing, creating a culture and an identity that will make them win every night."

The new coach won't worry too much about X's and O's as he gets to know his new team. Instead, he will stress the broad brush strokes that succeed in today's NHL.

"You need speed, and you need to be a good transitional team because you need to score goals," Muller said. "In order to do that, you've got to be in shape, you've got to work and you've got to be able to play a high-tempo game. You've got to be able to play with the puck and without the puck."

When he finally steps up behind the bench Tuesday, he expects to feel the same rush he experienced as a player.

"You need to have those butterflies," he said. "It's a game, but it's fun. There's nothing like being a player, but the next best thing is getting into the grind with the players and the game and feeding off the atmosphere. That's what it's all about."

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