DeCock: Muller changes Canes’ free-agent dynamic

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2012 

— What usually passes as a quiet day for the Carolina Hurricanes has the potential to be quite a bit busier Sunday, as they continue to both revamp their team and spend the money needed to do it. When the NHL’s free agents hit the market, the Hurricanes won’t be waiting to see who falls through the cracks this time.

A big reason for that push is the new man behind the bench. Kirk Muller has a distinct vision for the team, one that’s going to need some personnel changes to implement. He’s also the Hurricanes’ secret sales-pitch weapon – their free-agent closer, if they’re smart.

Outside voices have always proven catalytic for the Hurricanes, and Muller has the potential to play the same role Peter Laviolette did seven years ago: changing which free agents the Hurricanes pursue and how they go about it.

In terms of philosophy, Muller saw a lot of what he needed to see over the second half of the season. In terms of personnel, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“The structure is in now, the type of way we want to play,” Muller said. “Now it’s a matter of getting an identity that this is a hard team to play against. Getting a little bit bigger is a factor. It’s such a marathon, this league, it really is. To play 82 games, and roughly another 20 to win it, you need that size.”

The draft-day acquisition of Jordan Staal takes care of the glaring need for another top-caliber forward, although Muller will still have some work to do sorting out who plays with whom. Other priorities for Sunday and beyond include a right-shot defenseman capable of playing in the top four and more size overall.

Identifying players is one thing, selling them on Carolina another. Muller will have a big role to play in the latter as well.

When the Hurricanes signed Jeremy Welsh last spring out of Union College, they had to compete with other teams to sign the college free agent. Getting a chance to meet with Muller was a big part of why Welsh chose the Hurricanes.

“I talked to other general managers, but to have a coach tell you what he expects and where he sees you playing – his vision of me kind of matches the way I see myself,” Welsh said. “We both have the same expectations. It’s going to be a good relationship.”

Welsh bought into what Muller was selling, and who wouldn’t? Muller is universally respected by NHL players, who grew up watching him and admiring his work ethic. As a captain, he had a knack for getting the best out of his teammates, and if his work with Eric Staal is any indication, he has the same ability as a coach.

Getting Muller in a position where he can sell free agents on his vision for the Hurricanes and what he can do for their careers should be as much a part of Carolina’s sales pitch as anything. They have a long list of famous former players who can extol the virtues of living here; nobody can do a better job of selling the hockey side of things than Muller.

“Anything we can do, anything extra, we have to,” Muller said. “I think we really believe in what we’ve got going here, but it’s still a sales pitch.”

It’s a new landscape for the Hurricanes in so many ways Sunday. They’ll aim high. With Muller, they actually have a chance of hitting the target.

DeCock:, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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