Canes coach Kirk Muller answers questions about his status with team

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2014 

The first question asked of Kirk Muller on Wednesday was about his status with the Carolina Hurricanes and if he would return as coach next season.

“As of right now I’m the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes,” Muller replied.

But the fact Muller was holding an end-of-year press conference at PNC Arena three days after the season, after the Canes again missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, may have been an answer in itself.

Muller, who has one year left on his contract, said he has met with general manager Jim Rutherford and Ron Francis, vice president of hockey operations, to evaluate the season. The Canes failed to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight year and the third time since Muller was named coach in November 2011.

“It’s basically about reviewing the season, the hockey club and what went right and wrong,” Muller said of the discussions.

The talks likely included some of the questions posed to Muller by the media on Wednesday – about his relationship with the Canes players and how they responded to what he asked of them in terms of playing style, competition level, accountability and consistency.

During player interviews Tuesday, goaltender Cam Ward was asked if it was tough for Muller to “get his message across” to the players. Seemingly surprised by the question, Ward replied, “Yeah, I mean I’m gonna, for me, obviously … yeah, I’m going to avoid that one.”

Canes captain Eric Staal later said the coaching staff had done a good job, but added players and coaches needed to do a better job, be evaluated and placed under a “microscope” when a team misses the playoffs and has a disappointing year.

Goaltender Anton Khudobin, who had his media availability Wednesday, said he had a good relationship with Muller in his first season with the Canes.

“Me and him were good,” he said. “I can’t answer for everybody. I got his messages. Maybe somebody doesn’t. I don’t know how I can answer for other guys.”

Khudobin said he believed Muller had the respect of everyone on the team. “Of course. He’s the coach and you’re just the player,” he said.

Muller said the coaching staff was “really starting to grow” with the team, especially with younger players such as Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk and Elias Lindholm. As for the relationship with veteran players such as Staal and Ward, he said, “I don’t see any problem with any of them. It’s natural with older players or experienced players, when you don’t make the playoffs a few years in a row there’s a lot of pride with pro athletes (and) there’s frustration that kicks in.

“I hope there are some players who are not happy and not complacent and want to get this thing turned around. If we had 20, 22 happy guys here today, that’s not a good sign. So we have to keep pushing everybody to be accountable. We (coaches) have to be accountable. We’ve got to get better and in order to do that we’ve got to do this together.”

Asked about Ward’s non-answer and whether changes to the team roster were needed to assure everybody was “all-in,” Muller said, “Everybody’s going to have a different opinion of different things. ... I really believe with our group, playing the system, being healthy, we can be a good hockey team. But we need everybody.”

Muller, who has an 80-80-27 overall record with Carolina, touched on most of the issues Rutherford mentioned in an interview Monday – inconsistent play, a mediocre home record, a power play that wasn’t effective much of the year. Muller noted the injuries to Khudobin and Ward early in the season, and another to Skinner.

Ward and Skinner both went out during the Oct. 24 road game against the Minnesota Wild. Carolina lost 3-1, the start of a five-game losing streak.

Muller said one priority entering the season was being stronger in the defensive zone and lowering the goals-against average, and that the Canes did that – from 3.31 goals allowed per game last season (29th NHL) to 2.76 goals allowed (19th).

“That’s a pretty drastic improvement,” Muller said. “I think with two healthy goalies we can make that even better.

“I’m optimistic. I’m disappointed, I’d much rather be starting in the playoffs. … But I really believe we’re going to have a good hockey team ready to go next year.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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