RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller has talked of his younger players going through learning experiences – often painfully so – in the past month, during the team’s tough times.
But what about Muller?
He’s 47 but has been an NHL head coach for parts of two seasons. He has coached just 98 NHL games, and the recent run of losses was new for him.
“Every game or every day there’s something different that comes up and you’re being tested,” Muller said. “It is an experience, really. As a young coach I have to keep learning every day and try to get better.
“There’s no way I can sit here and tell my players that what we’re going through is any different for them than it is for us (coaches). You learn. You have to. You have to able to walk in that room and sell your ideas and have them believe in it.”
Before the Canes’ 4-2 win Saturday over the Boston Bruins, they had lost seven in a row and 14 of 15 games. That’s a test for any coach, even those with Stanley Cups on their resumes, and can leave them second-guessing themselves and their methods.
There have been times when Muller has been animated, during and after games, the players say. Affable and open with the media, he can bring the fire with his team when need be.
“There were some times he got fired up,” forward Jeff Skinner said Monday. “There was a game when we didn’t have a good effort and that was the message: the compete level, the work wasn’t there. He knows how to get the message across.”
But despite the losses, Skinner said Muller has not changed his approach, that he has been honest and fair. For players, that’s critical.
“He has been consistent in his message of believing in the system and sticking with it and things will pay off and turn around for us,” Skinner said. “It’s good to have that kind of positive message when the bounces aren’t going your way but the work is there.”
Muller laughed when asked if he had been tempted to punch a hole in the wall doing the recent run of losses. Such theatrics will get a team’s attention.
“I did not, no,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago. I don’t heal as quick, either.”
Some coaches, especially inexperienced head coaches, may have trashed their systems or looked for quick-fix solutions during the kind of losing streak that should keep the Canes out of the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Not Muller.
It helped that Canes assistant coaches John MacLean and Dave Lewis have been NHL head coaches – MacLean with the New Jersey Devils, Lewis in Detroit. They can offer ideas. But in the end, it’s the head coach’s call.
“Truthfully, in this kind of a season I don’t regret not changing our system and all that,” Muller said. “I don’t think in the big picture it works. For us to move forward we have to have a vision of the big picture.
“So as far as beating ourselves up, of course we start with the coaching staff and we try to say should we do this and that. That’s what it’s all about – to try and find a way to win every night and what adjustments we can do to do that. But I don’t think we beat ourselves up. It’s part of the challenge...”
There’s no overlooking the injuries the Canes have suffered. Cam Ward, their best goaltender, was lost to a knee injury. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen has been lost to a broken heel bone. Defenseman Justin Faulk missed nine games with a knee injury.
The Hurricanes were 15-9-1 and leading the Southeast Division. They’re now 17-22-2.
“Quite frankly before the injuries we were a team sitting in first place,” Muller said. “But I think to go and change things for the sake of change gives the wrong message.”
Or to rant and rave.
“I think it’s important … for us to show the same demeanor, to show that we’ve got to stay with it and the results will change. That was the strong message from our staff,” Muller said. “It hasn’t been perfect. But we’re pushing the guys and making them accountable. Overall I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of not panicking and staying with the program and encouraging the guys to stay with it.”
After the win over the Bruins, Muller’s overall record with Carolina is 42-42-14. Just seven games remain in what has been a shortened, now frustrating season.
Canes captain Eric Staal talked Monday about Muller’s handling of the team, of how he compares to former Carolina coaches Peter Laviolette and Paul Maurice.
“He’s been good,” Staal said. “There are a lot of things we need to address and get better at, but I think he has done a good job making sure we have the right mindset and right frame of mind to do the job.”
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip