New coach alters Canes’ course
Muller changed Carolina culture
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 8-134 start. Out was the affable Paul Maurice; in was one of the most talked-about young coaches in hockey, Kirk Muller.
Carolina still is in last place in the Southeast Division, but the Hurricanes were 16-14-10 entering last night’s game with Muller behind the bench.
“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 TAMPA BAY AT CAPITALS Thursday: TV: Radio: 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.
“We’re still, to this day, we still make mistakes and stuff. It’s tough,” Alzner said Tuesday. “It’s always tough when you change anything — personnel or systems — during the season. You’ve got to just go with the flow and figure it out. I think that now we are starting to figure it out.”
And though the desired results might be further away for the Hurricanes, Carolina seems to be on the path toward playing Muller hockey well into the future.
“I knew before I took the job it would be a lot of work,” Muller said. “But the guys, I love their enthusiasm. I love the way they’re trying. I see a lot of good signs that I think will keep us going in the right direction.”
Andray Blatche was anxious. After missing more than a month with a strained calf, the Washington Wizards power forward finally was making his return to the court. He was ready, as he put it, “to start ballin’ again.”
But his reception from the Verizon Center crowd was less than what he hoped for.
On Saturday, the Wizards hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Blatche was booed the moment he entered the game and nearly every time he touched the ball.
“You hate it,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said as he struggled to find words for the way Blatche is being treated.
“Like I said, the fans . . . I’d never do something like that to a team I’m rooting for, but that’s their . . . it is what it is. If you walked into the arena every day and that happened to you, you wouldn’t feel too good about yourself.”
The Wizards won, and for Blatche, it took some of the sting out of the chilly reception. But Monday against the Golden State Warriors, the boos were worse, and so was Blatche’s performance. His game not only was rusty, but tentative, and showed signs that the boos were getting to him.
Rashard Lewis, a 14-year NBA veteran, said he’s never seen anything like it.
“That’s tough, especially being booed in front of your home crowd fans, but he’s got to play through it,” Lewis said. “I think as a team we have to rally around him.”
Maurice Evans, a 13-year NBA veteran, also has seen some disgruntled fans in his time, but like Lewis, said that this a whole new level.
“I haven’t seen a player booed like that, much less at home,” Evans said. “I’ve seen a few guys, seen teams that I’ve been on, [where] we’ve been booed when we’ve given a poor effort. But this is just something [else]. We have got to help him out a little bit.”
Evans suggested that the team use Blatche more in the low post and not have him on the wing shooting jumpers. He said that playing more to his teammate’s strength could improve Blatche’s game and silence the boos.
Ironically, Blatche also stated his preference to play in the post more on opening night and was soundly criticized for the appearance that he was calling out then-coach Flip Saunders.
But with the NBA trading deadline March 15 and Blatche the subject of rumors, the best way for his game to improve might be for him to be playing in a different uniform. Blatche is in the second year of a contract extension, and he’s scheduled to make $35 million for the next five seasons.
After Monday’s game, Blatche let his guard down and acknowledged that the boos are getting hard to ignore.
“You’re home and people that’s supposed to have your back don’t have your back,” Blatche said. “Instead of encouraging you to get better, they push you down and hope you do worse. It’s not only hurting me, it’s hurting my teammates. I’m just hopefully trying to fight it and overcome.”
Wizards forward Andray Blatche can’t seem to catch a break with the fans, and sometimes the referees, at Verizon Center during Washington’s 8-29 start.