RALEIGH, N.C. – Kirk Muller went about his daily business as the head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes and said as much when the team held his end-of-season media availability at PNC Arena on Wednesday.
Even though he subtly paused when asked if he had been told by management that he would return to coach the team next year, he stated clearly, “as of right now, I’m head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.”
“I’ve talked to Ronnie (Francis) and Jim (Rutherford) and basically it was all about reviewing the season, the hockey club and what went right and wrong. But as of right now I’m just goin’ about bein’ the head coach and doin’ it every day.”
Completing his first full season behind the bench, but leading the team for his third, the final result at the end of 82 games was another failed attempt to make the NHL playoffs – the team’s fifth in as many years.
His overall coaching record is as neutral as it possibly can be at 80-80-29, and shows neither dominance nor excessive mismanagement.
Muller’s general tone was upbeat even when answering questions that included phrases like ‘fell apart’ in them, and he made sure to highlight the work that’s been put in to develop a more cohesive team than the one he started with.
“I think the big thing is the growth of us all goin’ through this stage together of tryin’ to get better and bonding and building together” Muller said.
That answer illustrated the fact that this is a coach who understands leadership theory and is working through the various stages of forming an effectively operating group – forming, storming, norming and performing.
During his time in Raleigh, he’s advanced through the two hardest phases of forming and storming as he’s gone through numerous high-profile and role players coming in and out of the dressing room while trying to find the right mix of players to win games with.
Muller’s not entirely finished in that area as he felt that he would need to continue to work on how he dealt with individual players.
“I’m always critical of things I want to do,” Muller said.
“You’re always learning, getting better. There are areas I can improve on…I think we’ve done a lot of good things. We’re excited about a lot of stuff goin’ on – a lot of things with the youth bridgin’ the gap here with the guys and building and gettin’ better each day. That’s my job as a coach.”
When pressed to clarify what particular area he will improve in his coaching, he alluded to the fact of communicating better with each individual player.
“I think the big thing is you gotta’ get the best out of all your players,” Muller said.
“You gotta’ find a way and I think we have, and no different than any other team, there’s a different makeup of personalities. Whether you’re older, younger, or from North America or a European player, there’s a lot of dynamics that kick in. I think we got a lot out of our players and there are some other players that we need to get more out of, and that’s my job. That’s one thing, through communication and workin’ with the guys, you get to know their intangibles and their personalities. One guy you may need to give a little kick to while another guy needs a pat on the back. The more you get to know the guys, the more you can kinda’ find how you get the most out of those guys. So that would be the challenge for me to get the most out of every player on the team.”
Muller talked about how he and his coaching staff reflected on their work this season and felt that that they were ready to turn the corner to improve and help the team become a playoff contender.
That would be the norming and performing stages of development where the work of the team continues to build on the foundation that’s been laid out, but with more positive results coming out of it.
He has a system and he’s sticking to it and it yielded the results he was looking for this season.
“I do believe in the system,” Muller said.
“We can tweak it. I don’t think there’s a lot to be changed. I like the aggressive style. In order to play that, it’s important that you stay healthy and you use more bodies, but I look at it where the big thing with the system was you can still be aggressive but I truly believe you gotta’ have a good goals against. We brought that number down from 3.3 goals against last year down to 2.7 this year or 2.6. That’s a pretty drastic improvement.”
Muller’s system is one that places high physical demands on the players to never stop skating and to aggressively fight for pucks in the corners and along the boards.
It is not a style for the weak-minded or lazy, and 100-percent effort and health is needed to play it.
Unfortunately, the Hurricanes racked up a fair share of injuries that either kept players out of the lineup or had them playing with lingering ailments that provided inconsistent, under-achieving results.
Muller’s system also showed when each player was putting forth a full effort or not, game in and game out.
“I’m gonna’ continue, as long as I’m coach here, to keep harpin’ on that and I think with two healthy goalies we can make that even better,” he continued.
“If you take all the teams that are in the playoffs right now and you look at that stat in general, they are all in that range. For a non-playoff team, we’re right behind all the playoff teams with that average. So that area of the system shows that we can keep the puck out of our net and surprisingly our goals-for went from 2.7 to 2.6. It wasn’t that much of a change last year, so I’m optimistic that with some of our players not having the best year, if they can bounce back, and I believe they will with bein’ healthy and that, we have the capabilities to score more goals, givin’ up less, and that’s a pretty good formula at the end of the game.”
The team’s performance showed when it was executing the game plan to perfection with the full physical effort needed as more wins than losses accrued.
However, when there were lapses, the results truly showed and highlighted the individual players’ responsible for the losing result.
They couldn’t run away from it because it’s an unforgiving system that requires full buy-in and commitment.
If anything, what Muller and his staff along with management and fans watching alike saw this season was which players couldn’t or didn’t want to work effectively within the system to win games.
Even with continued speculation of Muller not returning to continue to lead the Hurricanes into the next phases of winning more games and eventually making the playoffs, he stayed his course in answering every question succinctly and continuing to be the head coach in Carolina.
“We’re disappointed in not makin’ the playoffs, but we gotta’ keep goin, Muller said.
“We gotta’ keep goin’ here in the right direction and meet our goals.”