Hurricanes’ Muller defends season

After his first full season as an NHL head coach, Kirk Muller found himself defending his "system" as the Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season.

RALEIGH, N.C. — After Kirk Muller finished his first full season as an NHL head coach, he met with the media — just like he did with the Hurricanes’ brass already — to discuss what was a disappointing season and give it a bit of an autopsy, so to speak.

There have been some questions as to whether he will be the Hurricanes’ head coach next season, his third after being hired in late November 2011 (and then the next season was shortened by the lockout).

"As of right now, I’m head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes," Muller said. "I’ve talked to (Ron Francis and Jim Rutherford), and basically it was all about reviewing the season and the hockey club and what went right and wrong. But as of right now, like I said, I’m just going about being the head coach and doing it every day."

Later that afternoon, he told Adam Gold of the Adam and Joe Show on 99.9 the Fan in Raleigh that he had not yet been told by management that he is coming back this season.

The Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, and there were plenty of failures and missed opportunities prior to Muller’s arrival. But in Year 5 without a playoff appearance, the thought was that change at the top would be inevitable.

It still might be, though if Peter Karmanos’ interview with FOX Sports Carolinas’ John Forslund on April 8 was any indication, maybe … it might not be?

There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the future of this team, and questions about everything from whether the stars can still produce (or, at least, the highest-paid players) to whether Muller’s system will work with this team.

Muller invoked a lot of the same themes Karmanos did in last week’s interview, whether it was referencing injuries, optimism about the core group moving forward or even "tweaks".

"I do believe in the system. We can always, we can tweak it. I don’t think there’s a lot to be changed. I like the aggressive style. In order to play that, it’s important that you stay healthy and you use more bodies," Muller said.

"But I look at it where the big thing with the system was you can still be aggressive but it’s still, I truly believe, that you’ve got to have a good goals-against. We brought that number from 3.3 goals against last year down to 2.7 this year, or maybe 2.6. That’s a pretty drastic improvement. I’m going to continue as long as I’m coach here to keep harping on that."

Muller was right about that — the Hurricanes have improved their goals-against average to 2.76, and it was the team’s best since their last playoff trip in 2009.

But the problem, of course, is that the Hurricanes’ 2.50 goals per game average was its lowest since 2004 (a dismal 2.10, dead last in the league). And the Hurricanes’ 2.50 goals per game was good for 22nd in the league, their worst finish since that 2004 season. This team had been in the top 16 or better every season since 2005. Until this one.

And there’s another problem: the Hurricanes, even with that improved 2.76 goals-against average, still finished in the bottom half of the league in that category (19th).

Still, it’s hard to blame Muller for defending himself and his staff.

The two issues he wishes he’d handled better or differently in hindsight were the power play and the team’s slow starts. Both plagued the team most of the season, but particularly the power play.

It picked up considerably towards the end of the year, but still finished at 14.6%, tied for the second-lowest percentage in the last 10 seasons. With last season. Muller admitted he stuck with certain combinations too long, hoping they would click.

But the slow starts situation was a mystery to him, and remains one.

"That’s one area that we’re going to sit and look at and see, evaluate and see what we can do different. We tried morning skates, no morning skates. I worked with loading up, shortening up the bench in the first period and getting the top guys out early, going four lines, getting everybody into it," Muller said.

"So we explored different options and at the end of the day, there was too many games that the first wasn’t our best period. We got better in the second and third. So we’re going to evaluate it. We’re going to figure out the solution and how we can come out with more of a team ready to go in the first period."

Muller was asked at what point in the season things "fell apart" for the team. The odd thing was, and Muller nailed this, it didn’t necessarily fall apart at any point. It was a more gradual disintegration, really; a transition from a team on the cusp of the playoffs and being competitive to one that was virtually irrelevant.

Both Karmanos and Muller mentioned a stretch where the top two goalies, Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, were both out with injuries. But the Hurricanes went 4-6-1 over that stretch, which isn’t great but certainly not season-killing.

And even with that, the Hurricanes were still in position to get a playoff spot after the Olympic break, as Muller admitted.

"We finished that last game here in a position that we could come back from the Olympics and challenge for a playoff spot. As you know, we didn’t do that. So I don’t know if it was one particular thing, but it was starting off after that Olympic break and not — I honestly thought we played well, but we didn’t pick up points," Muller said of the team’s four-game losing streak after the Olympics.

"That was when the push really started, all the momentum of hey the Olympics are over, now let’s push to the final game to get to the playoffs. Coming back from California and not picking up more points, with a young group of guys, I think the pressure started to kind of fill in the room and we were just battling to kind of keep at it and try to fight for that last playoff spot."

And that — a lack of any ability to pick up momentum — is probably a more accurate assessment of what went wrong than anything involving goalie injuries or lack of continuity or anything else.

Muller is also right in that this is a mostly young team, at its core. But there have been questions about how much the veterans buy into what Muller wants to do, and those questions didn’t abate after Ward declined to answer a question about whether Muller’s message was being received by the team on Tuesday.

When asked specifically about that, Muller said, "I hope there’s some players that are unhappy and not complacent and want to get this thing turned around. If we had 20-22 happy guys today, I think that’s not a good sign. So for me, to answer your question, we’ve got to keep pushing everybody, keep making everyone accountable. We’ve got to be accountable. We’ve got to get better. In order to do that, we’ve got to do this together."

And it remains to be seen if Ward or Muller — or plenty of other players, for that matter — will even still be here next season to try.