The Hurricanes’ next home game is Thursday, Dec. 15, when the Vancouver Canucks visit the RBC Center.
Kirk Muller hasn’t even been able to get a haircut. The new coach of the Carolina Hurricanes has done well to be standing upright, much less keep his hair straight, after a first week that more resembled a hurricane than it did a job.
“I’m in a hotel. I haven’t even been able to get a rental car. I’ve got a long list,” Muller said with a laugh after practice last Friday. Hired on Monday, Muller coached three games over the next five nightsall losses, unfortunately, including a 3-2 defeat Saturday to conference leaders Pittsburgh.
“Actually, my wife came in Thursday,” Muller continued. “She’s greatshe’s an old hockey wife and knows the ropes. She’s like ‘You deal with hockey. I’ll look for a place and schools and all that.’”
At the quarter-turn of a season in which the team’s performance has been as low as the expectations were high, General Manager Jim Rutherford ended Paul Maurice’s second tenure with the Canes on Nov. 28, replacing him with Muller, the ex-Montreal great.
But before we get to the strange case of the Canes, who have sunk to the bottom of their conference, and third-worst overall with Muller’s first three losses, let me remind you of why you follow sports.
To give you a clue, it’s not really about seeing your team win. If you just want to see wins, you’re more of a Yankees fan than a sports fan. You might strut into a casino and shout, “Go, house! Dealer has 21? Booya!”
Neither is it some lovable loser situation like with the Chicago Cubs. Cubs fans will gush hooey about the nobility of effort, but the moment it was about winning something in the Windy City, they almost killed some hapless fan in headphones who attempted to catch a crucial foul ball.
You follow a team because of its story, because each season is like a novel unfolding in time. But even novels obey narrative conventions and become predictable after a while. Not necessarily so with a sports season.
Admittedly, the novel that is this Canes season should have been shelved in the horror section. The opening scene was idyllic enoughthe boys of winter hoping to build upon last season’s unrealized promise, including the sensational introduction of young Jeff Skinner. But a malevolent mediocrity seeped up from beneath the locker room floor in the chapter titled “November.” It lashed out one Wednesday night in a shameful 4-0 loss in Montreal in which the team gave up before the national anthems.
“When we got to the point of the game in Montreal, where we started to get the inconsistent level of play that we would like,” Rutherford deadpanned at the press conference introducing Muller, “that was really the point where I started to make the decision to make a change.”
Rutherford is understating the level of inconsistency. The Montreal game was a stomach-turning slasher tableau with body parts strewn about and warnings scrawled on the walls in blood.
With Muller’s entrance, however, the horror story may have turned into a tense mystery novel: Will super-sleuth Muller be able to solve the strange case of the Zombie Captain? Eric Staal has just five goals and 14 points in 28 games. Will he track down the missing persons on his team’s power play? No club draws more penalties than the Canes, but they’re second-worst with the man advantage. Muller built a potent power play in his five seasons as an assistant in Montreal.
Or maybe Muller can turn this into a fantasy novel and reanimate the wraith that is Tomas “Pillowcase” Kaberle, who’s scored as many goals as you and I have this season despite signing a three-year, $12.75 million contract over the summer. That albatross can be hung on Rutherford’s neck.
But the Kaberle deal is a rare mistake in Rutherford’s 18 seasons managing the Canes, a tenure that reaches back to the Hartford Whaler days. Named the league’s executive of the year in each of the two years the Canes have reached the Stanley Cup finals, he’s also presided over subsequent plummets in the standings.
It’s not as clear whether rehiring Maurice should be considered another mistake. Having admirably guided the team through the forgettable Greensboro years, taking the Canes to the finals in 2002, Maurice re-entered the scene in December 2008 when cage-rattler Peter Laviolettewho drove the Canes to their Cup win in 2006finally wore out his welcome. Depending on one’s view of the low-key, defense-first prodigal son, Maurice was either a calming, transitional presence or a huge step backward.
When the Canes unexpectedly ran to the conference finals in 2009, Maurice seemed a master chemist. But when the veteran core of that team drifted away to other cities, they couldn’t make the playoffs each of the next two seasons, and Maurice’s restrained style just looked like Dullsville on the ice.
Last year was a compressed cardiac season for the Canes. The team endured ups (Skinner’s emergence, hosting the All-Star Game, catching fire down the stretch) and downs (a brutal season-opening road trip that began in Finland, narrowly missing the playoffs with a season-ending loss at home). But this year, once-creative players now yawned and dumped the puck, aspiring to make a good line change rather than a goal. The team got used to losing games and then letting themselves off the hook for it. Muller won’t stand for that.
Muller’s head-coaching experience thus far has been the fragment of his season with the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. As a player, he won the Stanley Cup with the Habs in 1993, captained Montreal and New Jersey, played in six All-Star games and tallied nearly 1,000 points in more than 1,300 games across 19 seasons. He was a strong, two-way center, nicknamed “Captain Kirk.”
Although Carolina has not produced a win for him in three games (a fourth game will have been played in Calgary by the time you read this), Muller’s positivity and emphasis on speed has been visible by degrees on the ice. The Canes battled the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins to the bitter end on Saturday night, falling 3-2 when a last-second shot by Jussi Jokinen went off the post instead of into the net.
“We knew these three games were going to be really tough,” the coach nodded. “We’re obviously not at the top of it yet, but we’re certainly catching on. They’re seeing it. This game, it looks hopefully like we’re more up-tempo. We’re aggressive. We’re pushing, and that’s what we want. And getting the trust of each other to play that way. We’ve just got to keep building. It’s a process right now.”
Muller wants the players to forget about the past, and his hiring indicates a similar turn for Rutherford, who has been guilty of misguided loyalty (see coaching hire, December 2008) in the past. With a staff and an organization packed with ex-Canes players such as Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Jeff Daniels and Tom Barrasso, remaking the team required an outsider.
If Muller is Sherlock Holmes in this story, then perhaps his former Devils teammate John MacLean, hired as his assistant coach three days later, will be his Dr. Watson. (Rutherford should be commended for recognizing that a promotion from within wouldn’t have worked.) Expect the plot to thicken as the league’s trading deadline approaches on Feb. 27. Rutherford has made it known that he’s looking to remake the roster, too, announcing that a Canes defenseman could be had in a deal for a top-six forward.
While no trades seem imminent, tires are being kicked. When the New York Rangers visited last Thursday, 11 different teams had scouts in the RBC Center.
Keep reading. If you already closed the book on the Canes this year, you should pick it up off the shelf and find the page you last dog-eared. The story of the Carolina Hurricanes could be about to get good.