By Heather Engel
BUFFALO – As an NHL player, Kirk Muller never got a taste of life as a free agent. The Canadiens made sure his first foray into the market, now as a coach, didn’t last long.
One day after it was reported he informed the St. Louis Blues he wouldn’t be returning as an assistant coach on Ken Hitchcock’s staff, Montreal announced Muller’s hiring as an associate coach under Michel Therrien.
“I had several teams call pretty quickly,” Muller revealed via conference call, while in St. Louis. “One thing that happened right away is I got a call from Michel. He had heard the news and wanted to call me and see if I had any interest in coming to Montreal and working with him. We had a really good, long chat and he really excited me about what was going on in Montreal.”
He joins a staff that remains unchanged from last season, save for the departure of consultant Craig Ramsay. There will be changes in the distribution of responsibilities, something Therrien says he’ll take care of next week. One thing the Canadiens’ bench boss did confirm, however, is that Muller will be in charge of the power play, a woefully inefficient element of Montreal’s game over the last several years.
Muller ran the power play in his first stint behind the Canadiens’ bench, a five-year span that saw the team rank first or second in four of those seasons (and 15th the other time). The Blues’ finished fourth and sixth in his two years in St. Louis.
“When the opportunity to bring in a guy like Kirk Muller presented itself, I spoke with (general manager) Marc (Bergevin), who called (Blues general manager) Doug Armstrong for permission, and I spoke to Kirk yesterday morning.” Therrien said. “After I spoke with him, I called Marc right away and told him to make sure to close the deal because he’s exactly what we need.”
He also fills a valuable and key role as a communicator, a go-to guy between player(s) and coach and vice versa. Former assistant coach Gerard Gallant served in that role in his two seasons on Therrien’s staff. Since his departure, however, from the outside it’s an area that appears to be lacking.
He’ll be working under his fourth head coach after standing alongside Guy Carbonneau, Bob Gainey and Jacques Martin from 2006 to 2011. He had minimal experience behind a bench during his first go, having served as head coach of the Queen University Golden Gaels in 2005-06, just two years out of retirement.
But in his years as an assistant in Montreal, the praise rolled in. First, there was Martin recognizing what he brought to the table and retaining him when Martin was hired in 2009. The following season, Muller was a hot head coaching commodity, leaving the Canadiens to guide the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate before the Carolina Hurricanes tabbed him as Paul Maurice’s replacement in November 2011.
“I am such a better coach right now than when I left Montreal,” Muller said. “There’s things now that I really believe in still in what I was doing (in Carolina) and there’s other things that I know where I made my mistakes. But I know where my mistakes where and what I learned and all that by coming to St. Louis.
“The knowledge of operating on a day-to-day basis and how a staff can operate on today’s hockey was what I really learned and had a great appreciation of how hard Hitch works,” he added. “That area is what I think has made me a better coach over the two years that I was here in St. Louis.”
There has been plenty of turnover in the five years since Muller left, both on the ice and in the front office. But there will also be plenty of familiarity in his return, with most of the team’s core and leadership group – including Carey Price, captain Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov – among those he has helped guide.
While the Canadiens moved quickly on Muller, they weren’t the only ones to jump at the opportunity to land his services. The 50-year-old admitted he was surprised to hear from “a few teams” so soon after the news broke.
With his past experience and self-acknowledged growth, Muller’s hiring raised the question of his future behind an NHL bench as a head coach, potentially even in Montreal. The Kingston, Ont., native, who opened his conference call with “Bonjour mes amis. Je suis très content de revenir avec les Canadiens.” made it clear that he’s not thinking of anything beyond his current role.
“That’s not really my goal right now. My goal really is to be a part of an organization like Montreal, work with Michel,” he said. “I’ve had the experience of being an assistant coach, coming here with this organization from St. Louis, and I’m very comfortable right now with not being a head coach. There’s a lot of responsibility as well. You do see today that a lot of successful staff, it’s not about one guy anymore, it’s so demanding.”
Much beloved during his time in a Canadiens sweater, the adoration from fans remains strong more than 20 years after he was traded. It’s a feeling that remains mutual.
“Everyone knows I love Montreal,” he noted with a laugh. “I’ve had great experiences with the organization. It is topnotch, first-class from Geoff Molson down. I’m just really excited that I have an opportunity that they want me back for a third time.
“I love the city. It’s like coming home.”