A key member of the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup team in 2006 and the 2009 conference finalists, Ray Whitney remains fond of this area and this franchise even after leaving as a free agent to join the Phoenix Coyotes in the summer of 2010. He watched with particular interest when Kirk Muller was hired to replace Paul Maurice on Monday, because there may be few people in the game of hockey Whitney knows as well.
Whitney played with Muller for the Florida Panthers for parts of three seasons, and the two became close friends, even taking their wives to the Caribbean together during one Olympic break, and still talk every few weeks. I caught up with Whitney late last night to talk about the Canes’ new coach.
As a player, Muller was known for his intensity, and Whitney could see even then how his leadership qualities would translate to coaching -- and has watched that process from afar.
“He’s always been an unbelievable guy, to start off with,” Whitney said. “He’s always a fun guy, but he could be very intense when it came to game time. … One thing I’ve noticed talking to him, is he’s absorbed with the game. He’s not a coach with a set plan, a set system. He’s willing to change when something’s not going well and make adjustments midgame. He has a real handle for the actual flow of the game.”
Muller was coy during Monday’s press conference when it came to what style of play he would implement, saying he didn’t want to be disrespectful to Paul Maurice by enumerating specific system changes. Whitney said, based on his conversations with Muller, to expect a more up-tempo approach.
“He’s got a pretty good idea of the league, especially the Eastern Conference,” Whitney said. “They’re going to play a fun game. My feeling, talking to him, is that he’s learned over the years that if you have the right goalie, you can build around that. Cam Ward, in my mind, is one of the top three or four in the league. Kirk will build around him. …
“He thinks it’s a privilege to play in the NHL and he wants his guys to work hard just like he did. He was a good player, put up some points, had an all-around game, but more than that he enjoyed his time in the NHL, and he wants his players to enjoy the game and have fun.”
Whitney also said Muller would have a pretty good handle not only on the coaching constraints of working for a team with a tight budget like the Hurricanes, but on the more global aspects of the organization.
Having won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens, served as captain for Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey and worked for Bob Gainey as an assistant coach in Montreal, Muller has been able to observe some of the sharpest minds in hockey over the course of his career.
“Coming from great organizations in Montreal and New Jersey, he’s always been one of those guys who understood the game from the ground up to the top. He has a handle on the economic pressures GMs face and everything that goes into what players he can and can’t have on the ice.”
As for the Hurricanes’ most pressing issue at the moment, Whitney said he has been watching Eric Staal’s game from afar and thinks it’s less about ability or effort and more about opportunity for his former Hurricanes linemate.
“In my experience, you get those opportunities when you have the lead and teams open up,” Whitney said. “If he can get out there when it’s 2-1 late in games, then Staaler is going to get some points. It’s so much harder to get points and score when you’re always coming from behind and teams are playing defense. You get up 1-0, 2-1, that’s when you get your chances and team