The Carolina Hurricanes 2011-2012 season is no longer about gaining momentum, about making the playoffs, or even, to a point, about winning.
All of those dreams went down the drain months ago—months ago, when Paul Maurice was still the head coach.
Now, the burdens of that era seem like a distant nightmare.
"The Captain," Eric Staal, has almost fully returned to his goal-scoring form of years past. Promising youngsters are successfully working their way onto the NHL roster, and showing glimpses of stardom once they arrive. Disastrous Tomas Kaberle and his ridiculous $4.25 million salary have been erased rather effortlessly from memory.
All in all, the entire team is simply playing with motivation and enthusiasm rather than sluggishness and carelessness.
And that's because Kirk Muller is standing behind the bench.
Although Muller's aggressive style and positive personality have brought only a slight improvement in record (so far), it appears as if his refreshing tactics may finally be making a difference.
The Hurricanes are 6-5-1 in their last 12 games, including dramatic victories over the likes of Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. After starting the season 0-5 in post-regulation games, the 'Canes have won two of their last three overtime contests, as well.
Much of that increased competitiveness has been a result of vigorous improvement in the offensive zone.
A newly-invigorated forecheck has transformed the Hurricane offense from a timid dump-n'-chase routine into a tireless, puck-pressuring unit—one that gave unprepared Bruin and Capital defensemen fits over just this past weekend.
It took a little while, but Muller has finally implemented the wildly productive strategy here in Carolina that he did last autumn in AHL Milwaukee. Back then, he described his plan to the Montreal Gazette with no details forgotten:
You have to be good defensively, you have to be good without the puck. But since the lockout [removed the] red line, you've [also] got to be able to score and ... score at the right time. So I really stress for the guys to be a very aggressive forechecking team, and I tell my forwards that if they want to play here ... they've got to be workers and do a lot of skating and tracking down and heavy forecheck.
At the time, such a belligerent strategy seemed only possible the for high-flying forwards of a team like Washington, Chicago or Detroit. But yet, in less than two months, he's made it work perfectly in Carolina with guys like Tim Brent, Anthony Stewart and Jiri Tlusty in his top nine.
Stewart has transformed from four points and a minus-two rating in 21 games under Maurice to nine points and a plus-four rating in 22 games under Muller. Such a turnaround has made Stewart, in his first season in Carolina, look more like a solid mid-line grinder rather than the cheap trade-bait item he seemed to be a few months ago.
Brent, too, has blossomed with increased ice time and psychological support. Although his faceoffs continue to be an issue—a mere 46.5 winning percentage on 314 total attempts—the 27-year-old center has pushed his points-per-game pace from 0.25 under Maurice to 0.42 under Muller.
A big reason behind the improvement is playing time: Brent saw 10 or more minutes of TOI in only eight of 25 games with Maurice as coach, but has received double-digit minutes in 11 of 19 appearances with Muller behind the bench.
Low-profile defenseman Jay Harrison has also discovered a new scoring dimension behind Muller's offense-first mindset. The 29-year-old blueliner had just two goals in 23 games under Maurice, but has recorded five tallies (and counting) in only 14 games under Muller.
Let's face it, though; the drastic improvements by Stewart, Brent and Harrison are nice. But that's not what Muller has focused on over the past two months.
Muller's top priority was expected to be, without question, Eric Staal.
And thankfully, that one-on-one attention has put the fire back in No. 12.
The statistical comparison between Staal's first 25 games—the ones before the coaching change—and his 22 games since is nothing short of astounding.
His well-documented struggles throughout the season's opening months were truly atrocious, as the one-time superstar recorded just five goals and six assists in addition to a league-worst minus-17 rating. Everything was falling apart—his fan support, his reputation and even his future in Raleigh.
Another week or two, and Staal might have been shopping for new homes in Toronto.
Fortunately, however, Kirk Muller arrived in time to save the day...and possibly Staal's career, as well.
Since Nov. 28, Staal has hit a torrid pace, racking up six goals and 17 assists in only 22 appearances—a 1.05 points-per-game pace. Comparing that to his 0.44 PPG average through the first seven weeks of his campaign makes it hard to believe he's still the same person.
Even his plus-minus woes have settled down with a withstandable minus-four mark under Muller.
Staal's emergence from the basement, combined with Muller's team-wide tactics, have jumpstarted the whole offense tremendously.
The exact same unit has gone from a 2.40 goals-per-game average with Maurice to a 2.86 average GPG with Muller. The additional scoring has been led by the powerplay, which went from a 12.2 to 20.3 percent conversion rate—including 35.7 percent since New Year's Eve.
Furthermore, Carolina's offense has put up three performances of five or more goals in the Hurricanes' last 19 matches, something they did just once in 25 games before Maurice was fired.
While veterans are leading the charge, the Canes' wealth of prospects have also shown more promise at the NHL level. When combined, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Brett Sutter, Drayson Bowman, Riley Nash and Jerome Samson have more than doubled their points-per-game pace since Muller's arrival.
So, when you see Muller's current career record as an NHL head coach—8-11-3 to date—don't be fooled by its mediocrity.
Muller has employed more successful strategies and productive attitudes in less than two months than stoic, monotonous Paul Maurice did in almost three years. And fans might not see it yet, but the victories, too, will soon come.
The Carolina Hurricanes may still be one point out of last place, but they're just a year of experience and one top-end acquisition away from being a legitimate playoff contender.
Because, at last, they have a coach capable of consistently taking them there.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 40 months so far with the site, he has written over 335 articles and received more than 395,000 total reads.
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