It was halfway through the first practice of the season. Players moved from one side of the ice to the other, in a five-man group defending the net, with no puck or goalie in sight. Kirk Muller stopped after one run-through for a Socratic pause.
“What’s the No. 1 guy do?” the Carolina Hurricanes coach asked his players. “Where’s he go?”
This is the kind of thing that only happens in training camp, when there’s time to teach, time to learn. It’s exactly the kind of thing Muller hasn’t had a chance to do with the Hurricanes until now.
It’s hard to believe Muller has been here for almost two years and Thursday was his first real training-camp practice, his first chance to really show how he wants the team to play, his first chance to really coach this team the way he wants to coach, from Day 1.
“It feels good, mutually, both ways, I think,” Muller said. “For the players it’s a chance to get accustomed to the system and define things and really understand everything. And for the coaches to really set the framework for our expectations of being a harder team to play against.”
This has not been an insignificant hurdle to Muller’s tenure. In the middle of a six-month season, there’s no time for lessons. It’s about the next day, the next game. The teaching happens now, in training camp, when there’s ample opportunity.
This is when a foundation can be built, a structure that can withstand an 82-game season, through lineup changes and injuries, late nights and long flights.
“It’s not to say you can’t implement things later,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “It just helps the cohesiveness and the mindset when everyone starts at the same place, coaches and players included. It’s more congruent and it’s group-wide.”
Muller took over in midseason, which is not unusual, but the lockout that wiped out the first half of the 2012-13 season forced him to conduct an abbreviated training camp with a slapped-together roster last January. It was no substitute for the real thing.
“It’s been a long time. It feels like a long time,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “For the way that he wants us to play, it’s good that we’re going to get a full training camp, get exactly what he’s looking for, ask questions.”
Muller spent a good chunk of practice Thursday standing amid the players, gesturing with his stick, constantly demonstrating and instructing exactly what he wants them to do in front of their own net: “I’m aware here. All of a sudden, you take Roddie out, now the second guy. Go. I got him. Reading on me. All you’re doing is supporting.” And when he wasn’t teaching, players were pitted against each other in battle drills, reinforcing Muller’s other message: Get tougher.
This is square one. This is where it starts. If it’s going to work here under Muller, this is where the work begins, where the road starts. His team even continued to get better after he left the ice Thursday, adding free agent Ron Hainsey as a much-needed replacement for the injured Joni Pitkanen.
Because of these unusual circumstances, it has been impossible to grade or assess Muller’s performance so far. Certainly there has been some degree of on-the-job learning from Muller, who had all of a half-season of head-coaching experience in the minor leagues, but Muller has been a winner at every level of hockey so far.
There’s no reason to believe, that given a full and fair chance, he can’t do the same with the Hurricanes. That full and fair chance really began Thursday.