Kirk Muller took the high road Wednesday. He could have burned the village right to the ground. He had every right to blast the players who expressed tepid support for him a day earlier, every opportunity to vent.
Instead, the Carolina Hurricanes coach talked about what went well this season, including an improved overall defensive performance and the growth of the youngest players. He refrained from blaming the team – or its leaders – for the endless series of slow starts for which they alone face responsibility, or pointing out the Hurricanes beat four playoff-bound teams in April without Alexander Semin in the lineup while losing the other three with him.
That’s just an unassailable fact, not an attempt to single out Semin, who was one of too many underperformers. But Muller refused to single out anyone. Instead, he acted like a man who expects to be back next fall, even if it remains unclear who exactly will end up making that decision.
“I believe if we come back next year, in training camp, and we are a healthy group, with the way we finished, we have a team that can change things here,” Muller said. “I’m optimistic.”
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A day earlier, the players weren’t quite as optimistic. No one stood up for Muller, not even the ritual “It isn’t the coaches’ fault.” Instead they threw out hazy platitudes like “Everyone’s under the microscope” and “This group is good enough to win.”
Cam Ward, who had the temerity to imply that Muller was to blame for his poor season because he didn’t give him enough playing time, was asked whether Muller’s message had difficulty getting through in the dressing room.
“For me, obviously,” Ward said, then stopped and changed tack. “Yeah, I’m going to avoid that one.”
It was a non-answer that said as much as an answer. Ward’s message didn’t have any difficulty getting through.
Muller, given the opportunity to respond Wednesday, shrugged all of it off.
“I don’t see any problem with any of them,” Muller said. “It’s natural, if you call them older players or experienced players or whatever, if you don’t make the playoffs a few years in a row, there’s a lot of pride with pro athletes. There’s frustration that kicks in. It’s not fun. We have to keep pushing here to achieve our goals. I hope there are some players that are unhappy and not complacent and want to get this thing turned around.”
Whether Muller is retained or not, there has to be some way to send a meaningful message to an entitled group of players that long ago became accustomed to getting its own way. That monster – and the playoff drought it has engendered – is the creation of a front office that handed out too many long-term contracts and no-trade clauses and a marketing effort that put star players ahead of the team in an attempt to sell tickets, both unintended consequences of otherwise benevolent intentions.
Peter Laviolette couldn’t get this group back over the hump. Paul Maurice did, with a team tooled by Laviolette, but stalled after that. And now Muller faces a similar fate after the playoff drought was extended to five years and seven of the past eight seasons.
With Jim Rutherford’s expected imminent departure and his replacement as general manager uncertain, it may be some time before Muller’s future is determined. If Wednesday was his last public stand, he went out the right way, respectful of his team, hopeful for the future.