When Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford decided that Paul Maurice was no longer going to be the coach of his franchise and he surveyed the landscape for successors, he must have asked himself some fundamental questions.
Among the likely candidates, along with the eventual pick in Kirk Muller, had to have been Jeff Daniels, the head coach of Carolinas top minor-league affiliate in Charlotte. Daniels, 43, is in his 15th year with the Hurricanes as a player, assistant coach at the NHL level and, for the last three, as general manager and head coach of the Charlotte Checkers. He entered this season with a respectable mark of 120-96-24.
As Rutherford contemplated his decision over the weekend, the choices stood right in front of him just 150 miles from Raleigh. Muller, the head coach of the AHLs Milwaukee Admirals until Monday and for five seasons before that a respected assistant with Montreal, played twice in Charlotte. (Incidentally, his team lost both games on Saturday and Sunday.)
One can imagine the puck sliding back and forth up the ice and Rutherfords eyes alighting for a moment on Daniels and then on Muller.
In the end, they remained fixed on Muller. Since both mens backgrounds and experience are fairly similar, one must sense that Rutherford was opting for a cultural change.
One of the huge positives of the Hurricanes organization is that Rutherford and owner Peter Karmanos have built it organically in a nontraditional market. So many front office employees and coaches are former players: Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Rod BrindAmour, Tom Barrasso, Daniels and even Maurice himself, who was in his second tenure with the organization and has been with Carolina on and off, but mostly on, since he was a 17-year-old junior player.
Rutherford must have decided that going outside of the organization was the best move to shake up a climate that seems to have gone stale. After Maurice succeeded Stanley Cup-winner Peter Laviolette another hire made from the outside -- during the 2008-09 season, he shocked many by guided the Canes to the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.
Alas, the next season the team fell flat on its face and was one of the NHLs worst for the first half of the season. Last season, the club had the playoffs within its grasp after a desperate stretch drive. A win on home ice in the season finale over a Tampa Bay team that had already clinched a playoff berth would have propelled the Canes into the postseason. Yet the Canes fell flat and trailed 3-0 less than 14 minutes into the game. They lost 6-2.
To start this season, Maurice had one more chance, but it was going to be a short one. Having made the playoffs just once since Laviolettes memorable 05-06 season, the Hurricanes could not afford to get off to a bad start.
Just beyond the seasons quarter pole, they sit second-to-last in the East with 20 points. That puts them five points out of the final playoff spot and eight behind Florida, currently the Southeast Division leader.
Part of the Canes predicament in terms of making the playoffs is that no other NHL team has played as many games as they have at 25. So while Washington is in eighth with 25 points, the Capitals have played only 22 games, creating a potential 11-point lead over Carolina. Florida which finished behind Carolina in the standings last season, a comparison that did not serve Maurice well has played 23 games, making the Canes a potential 12 points behind.
Winning six games might not sound like a lot, but at this point in the season, the standings in terms of the top eight -- rarely change dramatically by seasons end.
Rutherford knows this. Among the Canes biggest issues this season have been the performance of some of their top players. Captain Eric Staal, who has finished out of top two on the team in points once since 2005-06, is fifth on the team in points with five goals and six assists and owns the worst plusminus rating in the NHL (minus-17).
The teams top free-agent signing, offensive-minded defenseman Tomas Kaberle, has fallen to sixth on the team in average ice time, has no goals and only five assists, and was a healthy scratch on Sunday. Even goalie Cam Ward, who virtually carried the team on his back in 2010-11 during an All-Star season, has not played up to par.
Muller cannot heal all of this at once. But, in the mold of Staal both were second overall draft picks -- Muller is a former long-time elite NHL forward. He was a six-time All-Star and a Stanley Cup winner in 1993 with Montreal.
Rutherford must hope not only that Muller can revive Staal this season, but that he can help to mentor young players along the way of which the Canes have tons.
Kirk is a proven leader and motivator, and he has strong communication skills, Rutherford said in a statement. He was a captain and a Stanley Cup winner as a player, and did excellent work as a coach with the Canadiens and the Admirals. We feel confident that he is the right man to lead our team now and in the future.
During his stint in Montreal, Muller was in charge of the Habs special teams. His bio notes that every year he was there, his units finished in the top half of the league and that during the 11 playoffs, the Habs killed all 21 power plays they faced. The Canes rank second-to-last in the NHL on the power play, converting just 12.2 percent, and 21st in penalty killing at 80.2 percent. Kaberle, in particular, has always been a power-play specialist.
My job and role in Montreal was working with special teams last five years, being out there and working with the players one-on-one in the daily situations that occur, Muller said this summer when he accepted the Milwaukee job. That part will not change much when I go to Milwaukee.
And the approach shouldnt change much in Raleigh. Rutherford is banking that the on-ice results will change from the status quo.
In this case, change from the outside seem to be the right medicine.