Canes fire Kirk Muller; new GM Ron Francis plans ‘open search’ for new coach

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 5, 2014 

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    N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock assesses the Carolina Hurricanes’ head coaches since moving to North Carolina in 1997.

    Paul Maurice, 1995-2003, 268-291-145

    Maurice was a young lad of 30 when he moved here along with the Hartford Whalers, but he’d already been a head coach for two seasons. Perennially listed among the first coaches likely to be fired before each season in the national media, he took the Hurricanes to the playoffs in 1999 and 2001 before their unlikely and catalyzing run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002. After the team finished dead last in 2002-03, Maurice was on a short leash, and he ran out of slack in December 2003.

    Peter Laviolette, 2003-08, 167-130-30

    Laviolette, who successfully revitalized the moribund New York Islanders during a brief stint there, dramatically changed the culture of the Hurricanes going into the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season and foresaw the changes to the game coming out of it. His strategic vision and motivational skills were essential to the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup victory in 2006, but he was unable to get the Hurricanes into the playoffs over the next two seasons and was fired in December 2008.

    Paul Maurice, 2008-11, 116-100-30

    The Hurricanes brought back Maurice, who had an unsuccessful run with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the interim, to try and salvage something from the remainder of the team that won the Cup. He infused stability and tweaked the foundation left behind by Laviolette, sparking a late-season surge that led all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. That glory was fleeting, and Maurice’s next two teams both missed the playoffs.

    Kirk Muller, 2011-14, 80-80-27

    One of the game’s most respected leaders as a player and a rising star among NHL assistant coaches, Muller was in his first season as a minor-league head coach when the Hurricanes sought him out in November 2011, going outside the organization to replace Maurice. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in all three seasons Muller was in charge, although only one was a full season. Muller was fired Monday by new general manager Ron Francis, who said he wanted a “fresh start” for the franchise.

— A week after being named the Carolina Hurricanes’ new general manager, Ron Francis is looking for a new coach.

Francis made his first major decision Monday, announcing head coach Kirk Muller and assistant coaches John MacLean and Dave Lewis had been fired. Goaltending coach Greg Stefan was reassigned to the pro scouting staff.

“I just felt at this point going forward we needed a fresh start,” Francis said during an afternoon press conference at PNC Arena.

Assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour will remain a part of the coaching staff, Francis said. Brind’Amour, the captain on the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup champions, could be a candidate for the head coaching job.

“I haven’t really talked to him to see if that’s something he’d have an interest in or not,” Francis said. “But if he wanted his name on the list we’d certainly take a look at him.”

While Francis mentioned no names, others who possibly could be considered are New York Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, 50, who played with Francis in the early 1990s on Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup winning teams; former Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, who was a player and captain for the Hurricanes; and former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz.

“It’s an open search,” Francis said. “I don’t have anyone in mind. I have a few names I put on a list, and we’ll go forward looking to see who is the best fit for our team.

Looking for ‘a teacher’

“The biggest thing I’m looking for is a guy who’s a teacher. In today’s game you have to be able to communicate extremely well. You have to have strong leadership qualities. You have to able to manage people and the different personalities in that locker room.”

Muller, who had one year remaining on his contract, had no NHL head coaching experience when he was hired Nov. 28, 2011, to replace the fired Paul Maurice. He coached 187 games in his three seasons, finishing 80-80-27 as the Canes failed to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs each season.

For Muller, 48, this was his only full season with the team. The 2012-2013 season was shortened to 48 games because of the NHL lockout.

“In fairness to Kirk and his staff, it wasn’t your typical first three years as head coach,” Francis said. “He’s a really good person and the whole staff are really good people. We had a good conversation today ... and I told him this is the direction I felt we had to go in.”

Francis was promoted to executive vice president and general manager last week as Jim Rutherford stepped down as general manager after 20 years. Asked about Muller last week, Francis said he would wait on a decision, noting he had conducted exit interviews with the Canes players, then attended the Under-18 World Championship in Finland.

Francis met with Muller early Monday morning. At the press conference, he made it clear the dismissal was not a condemnation of the job done by Muller and his staff.

“This in no way, shape or form takes the players off the hook,” said Francis, who said all facets of the organization are being analyzed. “They still have to be accountable for their actions and how they played. … There has to be a lot of responsibility on their shoulders to turn this thing around.

“Just because we’re changing the coaches doesn’t mean everything is status quo in the locker room. We do need to evaluate that, and if there’s changes we need to make to make us better we’ll do that.”

Canes defenseman Justin Faulk said he was sorry to see Muller fired but not completely shocked given the disappointing season and failure to reach the playoffs.

“Obviously it's not something you want to see happen,” Faulk said in an interview. “Obviously when things do not go well with the team, you know it can happen. When you don't finish well, things change. You have seen a couple of other teams have their coaches relieved of their duties.

“It will be interesting to see who Ron (Francis) hires. As he said, it will be a fresh start for everyone.”

Playoffs drought

Carolina has not made the playoffs since 2009, when itthey reached the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. The Canes finished seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division this season, and with 83 points were 10 points out of playoff position.

The Canes had trouble scoring goals. They had trouble with the power play. They had a mediocre home record.

“We all have to take a certain amount of responsibility for it,” Faulk said. “The consistency of the team this season was not what we wanted. It's not just the coaches’ fault and not just the players’ fault. Both sides share that responsibility.”

Francis said in talking to the players he never received “any indications there was friction between Kirk and the players.” Faulk agreed, saying there was some “butting of heads” from time to time but nothing unusual with a hockey team.

“I think things were all right,” he said of the coach-to-player relationship.

Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said last week that he did not blame Muller and the coaching staff for the 36-35-11 finish this season, saying injuries to goalies Anton Khudobin and Cam Ward were major factors.

Karmanos insisted Francis would make the decision on Muller, and Francis said during last week’s press conference, “I am my own man.”

Muller could not be reached Monday for comment.

At his end-of-the-season press conference last month, Muller said he had met with Rutherford and Francis after the season to discuss “what went right and wrong.”

During player interviews earlier that week, Ward was asked if it was tough for Muller to “get his message across” to the players. Ward replied, “For me, obviously ... yeah, I’m going to avoid that one.”

Dineen, 50, was fired by the Panthers early in the 2013-2014 season but led Canada’s women’s national team to the Olympic gold medal in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Bringing back Laviolette?

It is not known if the Canes may have some interest in former coach Peter Laviolette, who led Carolina to the 2006 Cup. Laviolette was fired early in this season by the Philadelphia Flyers.

“This is not something you take lightly,” Francis said of the coaching change. “As I said, they’re good people. I think (Muller) is going to learn and go on and be a real good coach in this league.

“You want to analyze everything. … I think you take the information that’s there, you analyze it and you get sort of a gut feeling on what you need to do and you act on it. I just felt this was the right move.”

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

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