On the morning of Nov. 28, it didn’t take more than a couple of hours after the Washington Capitals announced the firing of Bruce Boudreau and the hiring of Dale Hunter until the Carolina Hurricanes made their coaching change.
While the Caps were trying to resuscitate a season that started with Stanley Cup aspirations, the Hurricanes were looking to begin anew after their listless 8-13-4 start. Out was the affable Paul Maurice; in was one of the most talked-about young coaches in hockey, Kirk Muller.
“He’s kind of come in and set a new culture up,” Hurricanes defenseman Jamie McBain said. “One of his big key focuses is accountability to each other. Obviously, I think we’ve definitely tried to work on that, and I think we’ve definitely improved on that.”
Boudreau stressed accountability earlier this season with the Capitals, but it was hard to change the habits of this veteran team without a new voice. Hunter’s mantra has been earning ice time and trying to teach his players using a lot of video like he did with London (Ontario Hockey League).
For Muller, every day is another chance to teach.
“I think it doesn’t stop, to be honest with you. You’re constantly addressing issues that you want to get better at,” said Muller, whose NHL playing career spanned 19 seasons. “I think overall they know what’s expected of them, and they know the identity of our team now and what we’re after and what we expect from them. As far as critiquing and working on it and making it better, we’re still not where we want to be at.”
The Hurricanes‘ identity is simple. Even though depth isn’t a strong point, they rely on young players such as defenseman Justin Faulk and center Jeff Skinner and veterans such as forward Chad LaRose and defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to win battles all over the ice. What they lack in talent, they make up for in work ethic.
“They’re always trying to outwork you,” Capitals forward Jay Beagle said. “And then they do have some skill up front that also makes them a hard team to play against.”
It doesn’t hurt to have Eric Staal, a rugged center who went into Tuesday night’s matchup on an 11-game point streak and racking up eight goals and 14 assists in his past 14. But the 27-year-old struggled for much of the first half of the season trying to find his defensive game.
On some teams, watching the captain and star player go through a tough stretch can be demoralizing. Staal’s teammates said it was quite the opposite.
“If anything, you look at him a little bit more and respect him a little bit more because obviously his numbers aren’t where he wants them to be,” McBain said. “When he was struggling, he was still battling hard each and every night and doing things away from the puck, whether it was blocking shots or making hits. Just doing everything he could, even when the puck wasn’t bouncing his way, to be a leader out there. And it’s definitely something we look up to.”
That’s something Muller has tried to instill in a young team that knows he’s committed to rebuilding a franchise that isn’t far removed from a Stanley Cup. Players said a new set of practice habits has helped them adjust.
“We’re a lot more aggressive in all three zones. He really stresses we work as five, so you’re going to see the defensive zone with five guys back and the neutral zone all five guys helping out each other,” defenseman Derek Joslin said. “We’re really hounding the puck. I think it’s just the consistency in practice of really putting the pressure on us to learn the system and perfect the system.”
In hunting for a playoff spot, Washington still is trying to figure out its identity. Defenseman Karl Alzner said on radio last week that he and his teammates have gone through “a lot of trial and error” to figure out what system works for them. That’s what can happen to a team that goes through a coaching change.