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Caps Coach Candidates: Kirk Muller

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Taking a look at potential options to fill the Caps’ coaching vacancy; next up, a longtime Habs assistant.

Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

With the Caps and Todd Reirden having parted ways, the search is on for the next bench boss - so we’re taking a look at some of the possible candidates, what they bring to the table, and where they might come up short. Next up? The Habs’ interim coach, Kirk Muller.

Early Career

Kirk Muller’s decorated 19-year playing career began when he was selected second overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft... most notable for being the draft in which Mario Lemieux went first overall to Pittsburgh. He spent seven seasons with the Devils, racking up 520 points in 565 games before being traded to Montreal prior to the 1991-92 season.

While he only spent three seasons there, he wrote his name into the Habs record book by scoring the Cup-winning goal to bring the championship to Montreal in 1993. He later spent time with the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Panthers before finishing his career with a four-year stop in Dallas. Muller retired at the end of the 2002-03 season with 1359 games played, 959 career points, and a Stanley Cup on his resume.

Coaching Background

Muller got his coaching career started with a brief stint behind the bench of the Queen’s University Golden Gaels in 2005-06, also serving as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 2005 Lotto Cup and the 2006 U18 World Championships. In June of 2006 he was named as an assistant coach for the Canadiens, helping them to four consecutive playoff berths (including that infamous 2010 run) before being let go in the summer of 2011.

His next stop was the Nashville Predators’ organization, where he served as the head coach of their AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals - a position he held for just 17 games before the Carolina Hurricanes tapped him to replace Paul Maurice.

Here’s how his three-year stint as the ‘Canes head coach shook out:

Muller’s time in Raleigh ended after the 2014 season, and he remained unemployed for a full eight days before St. Louis brought him in as an assistant coach. He spent two years with the Blues, then returned to Montreal in the summer of 2016 and has been an associate coach with the Habs ever since (with a brief run as interim coach earlier this month in place of an ailing Claude Julien).

Before and After

As Muller’s career as a coach in the NHL boils down to his three-year stint with Carolina and a few weeks in the 2020 playoffs, let’s take a look at how those pesky ‘Canes did before and after Muller’s time behind the bench.

Paul Maurice’s Hurricanes were at best a middle-of-the-road team before he was sent packing, and in the two years and two months prior to Muller’s ascension the ‘Canes accumulated a record of just 83-81-25. They gave up an average of just under three goals per game (2.99, to be exact), seventh-highest in the NHL over that span, while managing just 2.74 goals per game (14th). They struggled to put pucks on or toward the net at even strength, with a sub-50% CF% and the third-lowest xGF% of any team at the time.

Unfortunately for Muller, those numbers didn’t exactly jump up during his tenure (although they did finish the lockout-shortened 2013 season in the top 10 in even-strength CF). Both their offensive and defensive numbers struggled, as they continued to be near the top in goals-against and near the bottom in goals-for.

It’s hard to hold that entirely against Muller, however, because the team continued to roll along in mediocrity once his predecessor Bill Peters took over in 2014 - owing in part, perhaps, to the team’s internal budget that not only kept them from bringing in big salaries but often required them to bring in inflated salaries just to hit the floor. Peters compiled an almost identical .500-ish record in his four-year term, making the ‘Canes a better possession team but with little to show for it when it came to actual wins and standings points.

Caps Connection

Aside from a couple of years playing alongside former GM George McPhee in New Jersey, there’s not much to tell in the story of Kirk Muller and the Washington Capitals... unless you count that infamous clash that was the 2010 playoffs.

Muller has actually been given a ton of credit for the way the lowly Habs were able to eventually topple the mighty Caps in that fateful playoff season - and while some of the credit was certainly earned, there were a few pieces of the Muller mythology that may have been blown out of proportion.

To wit, remember how Kirk Muller figured out the Capitals? Here’s Greg Wyshynski on the subject back in 2013 (love you, Wysh!):

[T]here’s a great number of theories as to why Alex Ovechkin is no longer ALEX OVECHKIN. But know this: Ever since that playoff series against Montreal, Kirk Muller has owned him. [...]

So in nine games against Muller since the Montreal series, Ovechkin has a 0.44 points per game average, which is about half his average from 2011-13. And while his power-play production has dipped significantly since 2010, the fact is that Ovechkin has one power play point in his last 18 games against Muller teams.

Of course, since that article was written, Ovechkin has put up 32 points in 25 games against teams where Muller was a member of the coaching staff (including 12 points on the power play), so... make of that what you will.

Intangibles

As a 19-year NHL veteran and a Stanley Cup champion, Muller immediately brings with him an aura of respect. Here’s Habs forward Paul Byron on Muller:

“He’s always somebody who kind of talks with a certain intensity, with his heart. He’s been in your shoes, he battled. Anyone who watched Kirk Muller play hockey knows what kind of hockey he played. You have instant respect for him, what he says to you and his opinion. Whenever he delivers a message, it’s pretty heartfelt. Guys respect it, guys understand it, and I think he’s really good at teaching.”

Pros:

  • Has experience as both an assistant and head coach at multiple levels of hockey
  • Focuses on making players accountable and owning their style of play
  • Capable of making key lineup adjustments
  • Gets good offensive performances out of his players
  • Known for helping young players adjust to the NHL and isn’t afraid of using them over veterans
  • Described as approachable and relatable, and players love to play for him

Cons:

  • Head coaching experience limited to three years in Carolina and one season of college hockey
  • Oversees Montreal’s power play, which has been in the bottom third over the past four seasons
  • Has minimal playoff experience as a head coach

The Bottom Line:

Muller is an interesting prospect for the Caps’ coaching vacancy, as someone with both experience and a relatively recent playing career under his belt.

Now if the Caps are looking for a hard-nosed taskmaster, Muller probably isn’t that guy - but that old-school method of motivation is becoming something of the past anyway, and Muller has been able to get a lot out of his teams with a mix of tactical adjustments and the earned respect of an impressive career as a player.

The fact that he’s been with the Habs off and on for over a decade - and under different head coaches - speaks to how much that organization values his presence behind the bench, and current and former players alike have sung his praises. He might be the perfect mix of tough but fair, someone who is still young enough to connect to players but carries the respect of a seasoned vet who can make them listen.

Perhaps the biggest knock against Muller is that, despite a decade and a half as a coach of some kind of another, his time as a head coach is limited to a three-year stint with a mediocre ‘Canes team, and his recent interim run with the Habs was his first time as a head coach in the playoffs. Does that give him enough know-how and experience to take on the aging superstars and underachieving former champs in DC? That, ultimately, is a question MacLellan will need to answer.