Kirk Muller (see photos) took to the ice today for the first time with his new team at the RBC Center, and in many ways it appeared to be just another morning skate for the Carolina Hurricanes.
It was anything but, of course. It was a new day and all eyes were on Muller, who was hired Monday by the Hurricanes to replace fired coach Paul Maurice (see photos), and is charged with righting a season gone awry.
"Time will tell but I'm sure we can salvage the season," owner Peter Karmanos said today. "It's November. We need to get back to playing basic hockey."
That's all Muller wants tonight in his first game against the Florida Panthers -- good, solid, energetic hockey. And it starts with captain Eric Staal, who had a long chat at center ice with the new coach after the skate.
Muller and Staal talked about the forecheck and special teams and some small tweaks, but that wasn't all.
"I just said to him, 'I don't need you to be Superman,'" Muller said. "I told him, ''I just want you to go out here tonight and be my hardest-working player. Just play hard, have fun, enjoy the game.'
"If he's a better player, and 19 other guys out there are better tonight than they were yesterday, then we're a better team. He doesn't have to take the burden of having to do everything. ... All he has to do is go out and lead by example. Play hard, do the little things, great body language and have fun and just be the player that he is."
Staal has not been the player he has been in past seasons. He has five goals and six assists in 25 games, and a minus-17 rating. Now, he must deal with the firing of a coach and a move that was deemed necessary, in part, because of his slow start this season.
"Naturally you're going to feel that," Staal said. "If things are different and I'm 20 goals into a season and we're five games above .500, then we're in a totally different situation. But we're not and I'm not.
"There are a lot of different emotions, obviously, and disappointment in seeing your coach be relieved. Then there's excitement in a new voice and a new face. The biggest focus tonight is coming with that energy and excitement. It's a clean slate with a new coach."
Staal called Maurice a great coach, a good teacher of the game and someone for whom he had a lot of respect. Asked if there was a sense of relief, given all the speculation about Maurice being fired the past few weeks, Staal shook his head.
"There's not relief when a good guy like that loses his job," he said. "It's a bad feeling and something you don't like to experience."
Jeff Skinner, who sits next to Staal in the locker room, struggled to find the words to say about the coaching change. Staal experienced the firing of Peter Laviolette in December 2008. For Skinner, a second-year player, this is a first.
"It's new and you think of so many things," Skinner said. "It's unfortunate. I think everyone here thought 'Mo' was a good coach and a good guy. Personally, he has helped me a ton. He gave me a huge opportunity last year and I'm really grateful for that. It's unfortunate he takes the blame for the product when we're the guys out there playing the game.
"I don't want to say this is a wakeup call for us, because I think we all know the situation we're in. But it's a chance for everyone to regroup and hopefully get back on track here."
Defenseman Bryan Allen was more blunt about Maurice's firing.
"He took the fall for everyone," Allen said. "At the end of the day, it's the players in here who let him down."
Now, Allen and his teammates will play for a new coach. Tonight not only marks their first game with Muller but Muller's first as a head coach in the NHL.
"We've got a good young group here and and I said to them it's a clean slate," Muller said. "It's pretty hard to work in the first day and change all the X's and O's. I just asked them to be accountable to each other, work hard, come with some energy. Have some fun and play hard.
"It's a good young group. It will be fun to build with them. So, yeah, I'm excited about tonight's game."
The Panthers (12-7-4) lead the Southeast Division under first-year coach Kevin Dineen, a former Hurricanes forward and captain and a former teammate of Muller's. Dineen spent the past six years as head coach of the Portland Pirates of the AHL -- Muller, in contrast, had just a handful of games this season with the Milwaukee Admirals in his first head-coaching position in pro hockey.
Dineen quipped that Muller "certainly paid his dues in the minors for a few months" but said Muller was a "real quality individual" who would get the job done with the Canes.
But Dineen the coach is worried more about trying to win tonight's game, noting, "If I'm a player on the Hurricanes I want to make a strong impression. I don't think there will be any lack of energy by the home team."