In one game, Kirk Muller has technically already accomplished more, coaching the Montreal Canadiens than in three seasons doing the same for the Carolina Hurricanes. He probably wishes the accomplishment came under better circumstances, though.
With head coach Claude Julien out until the end of the first round at least following surgery, Muller helped lead the Canadiens to a decisive series-tying victory in Game 2. Truth be told, the 5-0 final score is probably more indicative of the Habs’ desire to make a statement in support of Julien than Muller’s skills as a bench boss. Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to say he had nothing at all to do with it.
Muller as Hurricanes Head Coach
After all, Muller does have the aforementioned three years’ experience as head coach of the Hurricanes on which to fall back. In that sense, those weren’t wasted seasons. It was a stepping stone, preparation for a moment like this, for example.
Muller’s hardly incompetent in that regard. Sure, he may have failed to reach the playoffs in any one of those three seasons, earning his first playoff victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday afternoon. He did finish over .500 in two of the three seasons for what it’s worth, coaching some relatively sub-par rosters.
It’s also worth noting the Hurricanes would have finished just three points shy of a spot had they played at the same pace under predecessor Paul Maurice than they did under Muller as a mid-season replacement his first season on the job in 2011-12. To put it in perspective, that season, two of the team’s top four scorers were Jussi Jokinen and Jiri Tlusty, each of whom were far from top-end guys the length of their careers.
Ward vs. Price
It’s safe to say, Muller has a lot more to work with, coaching the Habs, especially in the goaltending department. Compared to Cam Ward, who suffered through several injuries during Muller’s three seasons at the helm, declining further from a statistical perspective, Carey Price is proving to be a relative revelation, in spite of his impressive regular-season pedigree.
As a winner of both the Vezina and Hart Memorial trophies, Price simply has the capacity to be more of a difference-maker compared to Ward back then, as Price has proven so far. Of course to be fair, Ward did win the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006, even going so far as to replace Martin Gerber mid-Round 1 to help the Canes overcome a two-game deficit to beat the Habs. Up until this point in his career, Price has simply lacked the postseason consistency to do the same.
While Price has been able to steal single series in the past, he simply has never won a game in Round 3 or beyond. The Habs have admittedly got a far way to go before he can even get a chance to do so this summer, but they are at least firing on all cylinders as a whole and have been for five of the six periods so far against the Flyers. Muller’s job is in effect simple: to continue what Julien started.
Muller the Right Man for the Job
It’s not without its challenges, of course. The gamesmanship of the playoffs is akin to what you would encounter during a close political race, with Flyers coach Alain Vigneault calling out Muller for using his top power-play unit late in the blowout Game 2 win. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Muller’s position, that he felt it necessary to help the struggling 13th-ranked unit to gel, it’s clear based on the scoret the decision to go with Muller, even if only an interim basis, was the right one.
True, Muller may not speak French fluently, which is supposedly a pre-requisite for the position, according to owner Geoff Molson. And, yes, general manager Marc Bergevin felt the need to release a statement asking for understanding in that regard from whoever may take offense in this delicate situation. Even if the Habs have Dominique Ducharme waiting in the wings as a potential heir apparent to Julien, Muller simply should have seniority due to several factors.
- Muller’s been in his position as an associate coach with the Habs, his second stint with the team behind the bench, since 2016.
- Ducharme’s only been a Habs assistant coach since 2018, without any prior NHL head-coaching experience.
- Muller has actually won the Stanley Cup, albeit as a player, with the Habs in 1992-93, later captaining the team from 1994-95.
Regarding that last point, it’s a connection to Montreal some in the French-speaking local media believe is reason enough to give Muller a pass in the language department. Yes, even if he were to ever become head coach in more of a permanent capacity. Regardless, for now this is clearly still Julien’s team.
The man behind the bench may have temporarily changed, but the message is the same: win. Muller, generally known as a player’s coach, has effectively assumed the role of messenger here and everyone seems to have gotten it, at least for now. Until Julien returns, for Muller the games and potential accomplishments only get bigger. Even though the first playoff victory’s out of the way, they won’t get any easier. Thankfully, Muller’s proven both willing and able to take on the task at hand.