Every time the Carolina Hurricanes seemed to gather momentum under Kirk Muller, something always seemed to interrupt. The end of his tenure was no different. He saw reason for optimism as the season concluded but was fired with a year still to run on his contract.
Hired as head coach by former general manager Jim Rutherford in November 2011 to replace Paul Maurice, Muller was never able to get the Hurricanes into the playoffs, and new general manager Ron Francis said Monday he wanted “a fresh start.”
“It was a good, positive experience,” Muller said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I want to thank Jim for giving me that chance. I gained some good experience being here, and I learned a lot. I think I’m a better coach now than when I started.”
A week earlier, Muller had watched from the back of the room as Francis was introduced as the Hurricanes’ new general manager. Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, who spoke glowingly of Muller’s performance in a televised interview late in the season, sat beside Francis.
But Francis’ desire to start fresh led him to call Muller on Sunday and ask him to come into the office Monday. Their meeting was, according to both, cordial and professional, but it ended with Muller out of a job and two of his assistants, Dave Lewis and John MacLean, as well.
“It wasn’t like we lost the night before and came in the next day and boom, you’re gone,” said Muller, 48. “There was a three-week period of weighing what way it’s going to go. I was prepared for it.”
Looking back, Muller said there were times he thought the Hurricanes were on the right track. After he took over in the middle of the 2011-12 season, he thought the team really took a step forward that spring, even if it wasn’t enough to dig out of the early season hole that led to his arrival. But the lockout that delayed the start of the next season left the Hurricanes starting from scratch.
Even early this season, after October road wins at the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, Muller thought the Hurricanes had found a groove. Then with Anton Khudobin already out, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner were injured in the same game. By the time the Hurricanes stabilized, they were already playing from behind.
And this spring, Muller said the way the team never gave up, beating playoff teams down the stretch as some of the Hurricanes’ younger players – Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk – asserted themselves and took on bigger roles, made him optimistic about next season.
Muller declined to address the failure of a few of Carolina’s veteran players to express support for him after the season, saying his biggest regret was not getting to experience a playoff series here.
“Not knowing this area at all before, there’s some real passionate fans here,” Muller said. “It was fun to be a part of it. There are some real good, loyal hockey fans that really want to see this team do well.”
A decorated player, former NHL assistant and minor league head coach, Muller had no NHL head-coaching experience when he arrived in Raleigh. With one daughter at N.C. State and another in high school here, Muller and his family will stick around through the summer.
He may be done with the Hurricanes, but life goes on. And he’ll look to get back behind a bench somewhere, hoping what he learned here will help him somewhere else.