Commentary

DeCock: Francis, new on Hurricanes job, wastes no time making changes

ldecock@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.

— Before making his first major decision as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes – his first decision of any kind – Ron Francis thought about it for a week.

He talked to confidants throughout the game. He considered what the players had to say during their exit interviews. He weighed the arguments in defense of coach Kirk Muller. And Francis decided what he wanted, more than anything, was a fresh start.

Some novice general managers slide into the job slowly. Francis dove off the highest platform. A mere week after he accepted the role, Francis fired Muller – disregarding owner Peter Karmanos’ televised endorsement of Muller’s performance while firing a warning shot across the bow of any player who somehow saw vindication in outlasting the coach.

“At the end of the day, this in no way, shape or form takes players off the hook,” Francis said Monday, wearing a Hurricanes Alumni golf shirt.

The core group of players Muller was given when he arrived has managed to get three coaches fired: Peter Laviolette in the fall of 2008, Paul Maurice in the fall of 2011, Muller in the spring of 2014. Some members of that group – Tim Gleason, Chad LaRose, Tuomo Ruutu – already are gone. Joni Pitkanen might never play again. Eric Staal and Cam Ward remain.

Muller was dealt a bad hand. He played it the best he could. There was some on-the-job learning in his first NHL head-coaching job, to be sure, but he arrived in the middle of one season and waited through a lockout to start the next. Given his first full training camp last fall, his best players never fully bought into the program. And at the end of that season, a change in GMs wiped out whatever cushion he and his staff normally might have been given.

“It’s taken a long time to walk through this,” Francis said. “It’s not something you look at lightly or take lightly. They’re good people. He’s going to learn and go on to be a real good coach in this league. You want to analyze everything and look at all kinds of possibilities: ‘Do I make little tweaks? Do I change something here or there? Is it going to work? Is it not going to work?’ At the end of the day I felt it was the right move.”

There are echoes here of Laviolette’s time with the New York Islanders, when he was fired despite leading the woebegone franchise to back-to-back playoff berths. Then-general manager Mike Milbury was alarmed by player feedback during exit interviews. Four years later, Laviolette led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup.

Even Francis was sympathetic toward Muller’s plight.

“I think he’s going to learn from this experience and I think he’ll get another job and he’ll do very well,” Francis said.

On that note, Francis made it clear changing the coach is not the end of the changes he foresees but merely the beginning, and if there’s anything to be learned from Francis’ handling of the Muller situation it’s that he’s willing to consider any and all of his options.

“Coming into this job, it’s a fresh start, and I think I have to look at everything – including the players in the locker room, absolutely,” Francis said.

For the players whose public support for Muller was tepid at best – or, in the case of Ward, nearly mutinous – the coach’s departure could be a Pyrrhic victory. Changing coaches might have been Francis’ first big move as general manager, but he certainly made it seem Monday like it was unlikely to be his last.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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