When a team loses enough to make it obvious that a change in culture has to be part of the solution, it generally means the head coach has to go.
No, we’re not talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who may still make that move later this week with Randy Carlyle. Instead, this is about the Carolina Hurricanes: When Ron Francis took over as general manager of the Hurricanes last week from Jim Rutherford, he made it clear he was going to give the dressing-room carpet a good shake.
The first tremor came Monday when head coach Kirk Muller, 48, and most of his assistants were dismissed by Francis. With the Canes’ best players – Cam Ward, Alexander Semin, Eric and Jordan Staal – tied up in long-term contracts that are hard to move, it was no surprise that Francis put his first imprint on the team by firing the coach.
That raised the number of head-coaching vacancies around the NHL to five – also looking for coaches are the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. The shaky NHL job security extended to executive suites – a couple of general managers got fired as well.
No one will be surprised if the Maple Leafs make it six vacancies by dismissing Carlyle. However, Leafs GM David Nonis is believed to support the beleaguered coach and may be able to convince new team president Brendan Shanahan to spare him. But there could still be an organizational shakeup through the departure of some assistant coaches and team executives.
In Carolina, fired along with Muller were assistant coaches Dave Lewis and John MacLean. Goaltender coach Greg Stefan was reassigned as a pro scout, while assistant Rod Brind’Amour, once a teammate of Francis on the Hurricanes, was retained. Francis said he doesn’t know if Brind’Amour will apply to be the head coach, but indicated if he does, he would consider the former team captain.
People close to the organization believe the front-runner for the job is Kevin Dineen, 50, who was fired by the Panthers early in the season and then led the Canadian women’s hockey team to the gold medal at the Sochi Olympics. Francis and Dineen were teammates on the Hurricanes as well, and they remain good friends.
“It’s an open search,” Francis said at a press conference Monday. “I don’t have anyone in mind. I have a few names I put on a list and we’ll go forward looking to see who is the best fit for our team.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for is a guy who’s a teacher. In today’s game you have to be able to communicate extremely well. You have to have strong leadership qualities. You have to able to manage people and the different personalities in that locker room.”
Ulf Samuelsson, 50, is another former teammate of Francis’s who may rate consideration. Former NHL head coaches such as Guy Boucher and John Stevens are available, as is Barry Trotz, recently ex of Nashville. He always managed to keep the Predators in playoff contention despite budget woes, while the Hurricanes have been a wildly inconsistent group, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, winning the Cup in 2006 and missing the playoffs in nine of the past 12 seasons. But Trotz is expected to have several job offers to choose from.
Muller was in his first job as an NHL head coach after serving as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens and head coach of Nashville’s American Hockey League farm team. He was appointed head coach on Nov. 28, 2011, after Paul Maurice was fired, but in nearly three seasons he could not get the Hurricanes into the playoffs.
Francis said he did not sense any friction between Muller and the players, and he gave the impression the coach was fired not because of anything he did or did not do, but because the team needs “a fresh start.”
“This in no way, shape or form takes the players off the hook,” Francis added. “They still have to be accountable for their actions and how they played.”
The Hurricanes were hampered by a combination of sub-par performances and injuries to their best players. Goaltending was an issue because Ward, often playing hurt, failed to live up to the standard of his $6.3-million-per-year (U.S.) contract, which has two seasons to run. The Staal brothers have also been inconsistent, especially Jordan.