RALEIGH — It is probably too late to save this season - not impossible, but not likely either. Firing Paul Maurice may not do much for the Carolina Hurricanes this year. Bringing in Kirk Muller to replace him, though, has the potential to make the future considerably brighter.
Maurice's inevitable dismissal Monday came too long after the awful 4-0 loss at the Montreal Canadiens two weeks ago that sealed his fate - especially because last season's final-game capitulation should have done the trick - but at least there's hope in the hire.
Muller, 45, was one of the top would-be coaches out there, someone widely thought around the league to have a tremendous future. He comes from the Nashville Predators' AHL team in Milwaukee, but his reputation was built in Montreal.
In five seasons as an assistant coach there, under three head coaches, Muller was popular with players and established himself as a solid Xs and Os coach and power-play innovator, but one who could never become head coach because he didn't speak French - an unofficial but critical consideration in that market. Muller's departure last summer unquestionably factored into Montreal's slow start this season, one that got another assistant coach - Perry Pearn - fired last month. Muller interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Dallas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ottawa before landing in the AHL; if the Canes didn't come calling, someone else would have, and soon.
There's some low-hanging fruit to pick here. In the short term, it will be interesting to see what Muller does with the raw material on Carolina's miserable power play, among the worst in the NHL. A combination of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and, yes, Tomas Kaberle should give him something to work with.
Perhaps more important will be his relationship with Staal, who is enduring the most difficult season of his career. Muller scored 357 NHL goals in his 19-season career. He was the No. 2 pick in the draft. He won a Stanley Cup. He served as captain for two teams. If anyone knows what Staal is going through, it's Muller.
Sadly, former Hurricanes forward Jeff Daniels - whose Charlotte Checkers swept Muller's Milwaukee Admirals this weekend - was passed over. Daniels deserves a chance to coach in the NHL, although it would be better if it were here, but the Hurricanes should still be commended for going outside their family.
The last time Jim Rutherford went outside the organization, he brought in Peter Laviolette, who had the 2003-04 season to assess the team. In his first full season, after the lockout hit the reset button on the league, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. The combination of a new financial system and a new voice in an insular organization helped push the Hurricanes to a new level.
And guess what? The NHL's labor deal expires again after this season, which means the Hurricanes should start Year 1on roughly level terms with the rest of the league. (Peter Karmanos' self-imposed austerity measures have left them with the fourth-smallest payroll this season.)
Muller should go into next season with a more competitive roster whether there's time lost to a lockout or not.
And maybe it will work, maybe it won't. Muller comes highly recommended, but he's also an NHL head coach for the first time. There are no guarantees.
Either way, it's a welcome change on so many levels for an organization that was headed down the same stale path yet again.