Communication is Job 1 on Canadiens' bench
Assistant coach Kirk Muller has ears, respect of penalty-killers
Sitting on a beach in Mexico, Guy Carbonneau knows the Canadiens are in good hands back home in Montreal.
Well, at least when it comes to the penalty-kill unit, coached by former National Hockey League forward Kirk Muller.
Carbonneau, the former Montreal head coach, brought Muller on board as an assistant in June 2006 for his knowledge and enthusiasm. They were teammates on the 1993 Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, the last Canadian squad to hoist Lord Stanley's mug.
"I was always a little more shy than Kirk," Carbonneau said over the phone from Montreal prior to his 10-day vacation. "Kirk can get on a bus and five minutes later he knows everybody on the bus. That's his style … who he is.
"I knew my weakness was that part, so it was important to have someone beside me [on the bench] that can do that [communicating] for me."
Carbonneau was fired on March 9, 2009, with assistant Doug Jarvis also shown the door three months later after the hiring of Carbonneau's successor, Jacques Martin. Muller finished the season on the bench and was retained by Martin, who added Perry Pearn — his former assistant in Ottawa — to the staff.
It took some time for the relationship to develop between the three, but Muller said things started to come together just prior to the Stanley Cup post-season.
"Jacques has given me more rein in the playoffs to break down things and be involved on the bench," Muller told CBCSports.ca. "I guess the biggest thing I've found is I'm being myself and using my attributes — being a people person.
"If anything, hopefully, he's got an understanding that I know the game pretty well."
An outstanding communicator in the dressing room throughout his 19 seasons in the NHL as a player, Muller has been the Canadiens coach addressing the players during timeouts or in critical situations during these playoffs.
Interacting with players
Interacting with the players on a personal basis has become a strength for the 44-year-old.
"It's about energy, pushing guys, managing people and just getting them to buy into your X's and O's system," said Muller, who scored the series-winning goal for the Canadiens in their 1993 Cup victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
The players have done just that, with the Canadiens' penalty-kill limiting the Washington Capitals' power play, the best in the 30-team league in the regular season, to only one goal on 33 chances in an Eastern Conference quarter-final victory.
However, in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, Pittsburgh proceeded to score four power-play goals in as many chances. Montreal, though, quickly settled things down and didn't allow more than one power-play goal in each of the next six contests — going six-for-six in Game 7 — to win that best-of-seven series.
"We came off a series where we really took [Capitals star forward Alex] Ovechkin away the whole power play," said Muller. "We played man on man with him and forced the other four guys to beat us four-on-three. We were in sync and then we faced a whole different look [against Pittsburgh].
"I think it was a lesson for the guys that if you want to beat Pittsburgh or Washington, we've got to be a better-detailed team than they are."
Not only has Muller been forced to make in-game adjustments in the playoffs, he has little time to sell his message to the players. Proving to them his decision is the right one and being emotionally involved in the game has brought respect in return.
Following the Washington series, Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri told reporters that Muller "did a hell of a job adapting and making adjustments … and the guys listened."
Muller believes playing a variety of offensive and defensive roles in 1,349 games with six NHL teams allowed him to learn and understand the mindset of players on the ice.
"I think I did pretty much every role as a forward," said Muller, a natural centre. "First line, second line, checking centre. My last year in Dallas [in 2002-03] I played some fourth line, on the wing and killed penalties."
Brought up on video
Today's new generation of players are brought up on video and want to watch game film to learn, so coaches have to spend more time interacting with the athlete in this aspect of the game, said Muller, adding some players prefer talking one-on-one while others learn by watching a play run on the ice in practice.
"The better you know the guy individually the more you're going to get out of him because you can understand him and what makes him tick," said Muller.
Carbonneau believes Muller's rise in the coaching ranks comes from the adjustments he has made in each of his four seasons behind the Montreal bench.
"Kirk was an emotional player and used that to play for a long time. It was always a weapon," Carbonneau said. "As a coach, it could be a weapon but going the other way if you have too much emotion.
"As a player you show emotion to lift the team or yourself. As a coach it's really hard to do that. It can be a frustrating job because you do a lot of preparation and take time to figure out a game plan. Sometimes the game starts and it's like the players forgot everything and the next day you have to repeat it.
"When you're a new coach and don't know that, it can be frustrating," Carbonneau added, "but I knew in the end Kirk would be able to find a way."
Some hockey observers believe Muller soon may find his way to a head-coaching gig in Atlanta, Columbus, New Jersey or Tampa Bay.
Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada wrote in a recent blog at CBCSports.ca that Muller, after 23 years in the NHL as a player and coach, deserves the opportunity to be a head coach.
"I know he has the experience," Carbonneau said. "I just hope he thinks about me if he gets a job."
First, Muller might want to relax on a beach, perhaps with another Stanley Cup by his side.