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.