Mulling Kirk Muller's Departure From the Montreal Canadiens
Yesterday, François Gagnon of La Presse reported that following the expiration of his contract at the end of this season, assistant coach Kirk Muller would be leaving the Canadiens' organization and he would be stepping away from behind the Habs bench, likely to try and pursue a head coach position somewhere in the NHL. It was also reported that the Canadiens denied other teams (likely the Devils) the opportunity to speak to Muller in the off-season, despite doing the opposite for current Lightning coach Guy Boucher.
Muller is a well-known figure in recent Montreal Canadiens history. A former captain of the team, and a scorer of the Stanley Cup winning goal, Muller has long engraved his name in Canadiens' history in more ways than one.
I don't want to get into a Koivu-esque retelling of his career, but what you need to know is that Muller was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1984 with the second overall pick, behind Mario Lemieux. Muller quickly became the heart and soul of the franchise, earning the captaincy in 1987. But the Devils where going nowhere fast, and eventually traded Muller to the Canadiens in 1991 for Stephane Richer, a deal that would benefit both the Habs and Devils, as both teams won cups in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Muller would play a large role in getting and underdog team with an incredible goalie and not much else to the holy grail of hockey. "Captain Kirk" would tie his career best in points with 37 goals and 94 points that year. Granted those days that wasn't that big of an accomplishment, at each of the top ten scorers that year had over 120 points, but you can bet that Muller, a character guy and a hard worker, earned every single one of those goals and points, as he did the cup winning goal in the playoffs.
But as we all know, things would go downhill for the Canadiens after that, and only a year after earning the captaincy of the Canadiens, Muller would be traded to the Islanders. Ironically, Muller would refuse to report to the team, and the Isles would eventually bar him from the team (where have I heard that before?). Muller would eventually be traded to the Leafs, then a year later the Panthers, before finishing his career with the Dallas Stars.
Muller would retire in 2003, and it wouldn't be long before his coaching career would start. In 2005, Muller would become the head coach of the Queen's University Golden Gaels in his hometown of Kingston. At the end of the 2005-06 season, he would be named assistant coach of the Montreal Canadiens, brought in by his teammate in Montreal and Dallas, Guy Carbonneau. Carbo would of course be fire din 2009, but Bob Gainey would keep Muller on during his run behind the bench, and then Jacques Martin's run.
When you consider that three different coaches, which three widely diverse styles would keep a guy like Muller, you have to imagine that he's good at what he does. Muller, a character guy who you'll often see talking to the guys behind the bench in Montreal, is pretty much the polar opposite of the calm, reserved and introverted Jacques Martin. But that's what you want in an assistant coach. You want someone who thinks differently than the head coach and challenges the coach's decisions from time to time, or else things become monotonous - and as we know, that's already been a problem for the Canadiens since J-Mart's arrival.
You all know how I feel about Jacques Martin. There's no denying that he helped take this team farther than anyone would have ever dreamed of in last year's playoffs, and he deserves credit for that, as he deserves credit for keeping the Habs afloat two years running with extensive injury problems. There were games last year when the Canadiens had more players out than Bob Gainey replaced in the 2009 off-season. And this year? Missing their top two defensemen, and now one of their best forwards, among others, the Canadiens are still hanging on to a playoff spot.
But how much of that credit should really go to Jacques Martin? How much should go to Kirk Muller? It would be unfair of me to answer that. I'm not an NHL coach, I'm not at practice, and let's be honest, it's hard to really decipher these sort of things from watching games on RDS. But clearly, as a member of the coaching team through five seasons running and three different coaches, Muller clearly has his fair share of positive attributes.
Amongst a growing sentiment of discontent in the media with the criticisms of the head coach, people such as Arpon Basu have been quick to use this opportunity to somehow praise Jacques Martin, essentially writing off Muller as a minor loss for the Canadiens in the grand scheme of things. I beg to differ. Kirk Muller is like the light at the end of the tunnel for the Canadiens and their fans. He's the angel on the team's left shoulder, contradicting the things the devil on the right shoulder (guess who) is trying to feed them. He's the guy that's supposed to go up against the Martin philosophy, a philosophy that stifles what should be a speedy and talented team. With Muller present, the more talented players on the Canadiens can at least breathe a sigh of relief every so often.
People can belch Martin's stats and accomplishments all they want, but it's easy to look at the positives and ignore the negatives with a guy like J-Mart. It's like praising a player's 20 goal season, but ignoring the two 20 game goal-less streaks he suffered during the season. Martin has had to deal with a lot of injuries during his time in Montreal, we all know this. And yes, he's done more with this team than many would have expected, and a lot of their playoff success last season has to be attributed to his coaching style. But let's not forget that the Canadiens barely scraped into the playoffs last season in 8th place, and got lucky twice with a burning hot goalie. The same is likely to happen this year, at least the former part, and just like last year, the Canadiens stand no chance of beating a team like the Philadelphia Flyers in the post-season playing their current style, and I have a feeling that teams like the Capitals, Penguins and Bruins won't let the Canadiens repeat what they've done to them in the past.
It's not all unicorns and posies for the Montreal Canadiens. There are plenty of issues with the team, and the attitude behind the bench is one of those major issues.
What's most frightening about Muller's departure at the end of the season isn't even the fact that the Canadiens would have lost their second major coaching prospect in as many years thanks to Martin's ironclad grip on the bench. It's not even that they'll be losing Muller's coaching perspective, which has clearly been a positive for the players. It's the potential of who could replace him beside Jacques Martin when the next season begins.
Most are speculating that Randy Cunneyworth, coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, former Ottawa Senator under Jacques Martin and the prototypical Martin player during his career, is the obvious candidate. He has assistant coaching experience in the NHL and by all accounts he's doing a good job with the Dogs so far this season, even now with so many of his regulars up in the NHL. And I have to say, replacing Muller with a guy who thinks like Jacques Martin is a scary thought.
You can look at what this team accomplished last season all you want, but when you look a little deeper, the direction this team is headed is more than frightening. Nepotism and status quo seem to rule the way this organization is run, and unless the Molsons wake up and smell the lager, it will be a long time before the Montreal Canadiens see another Eastern Conference final.
Will Muller be all that big of a loss? Probably not. Assistant coaches can be replaced. But if Muller's departure does nothing else, it at the very least represents a problem with how this team handles its assets, and the status quo that is beginning to infest this organization.