A friend who spent some time around the Canadiens during the playoffs told me he was really impressed by Kirk Muller's performance. It turns out that behind the boyish grin is a keen, strategic mind, and underneath the natty suits boils a cauldron of passion he's able to use to inspire others. I know it shouldn't have been a surprise to be told it was his plan the players were following in the first two rounds, or that he was their most ardent cheerleader. He had the reputation of being able to drag a team to greater heights by the sheer force of personality when he was team captain too. However, I do own up to being a bit surprised by the idea that he has brains as well. I guess he does such a good impression of the always-smiling, slightly goofy, boyishly handsome sidekick, it's easy to overlook the toughness and smarts he keeps hidden. Unfortunately for the Habs though, my friend wasn't the only one impressed by Muller's mastery of x's and o's, as well as players' emotions during the playoffs.
If there's any truth to the rumours swirling around the Habs right now, Muller is in contention for a couple of NHL head coaching jobs, in Tampa and in New Jersey. He's also been offered the head coaching position in Hamilton if Guy Boucher decides to accept the Columbus Blue Jackets' top job, although rumours also suggest Captain Kirk doesn't want to coach the 'Dogs. Either way, the chances that Muller will soon move on are increasing. I'm convinced we don't know the full extent of his value to the Canadiens, and we won't until he's gone somewhere else. I want the Habs to keep him, but if his ambitions extend beyond being an assistant coach, the sad truth is the Canadiens have nothing to offer him. Normally, a quality assistant like Muller would be the heir-apparent when the current head coach inevitably gets axed. In Montreal that's not the case because of the self-imposed glass language ceiling. If Muller can't speak French, even if he's cut his coaching teeth within the organization and he's a desirable candidate for at least two other NHL teams who are looking for coaches, he'll never be considered in Montreal.
This brings me to Boucher, who *was* the heir-apparent to Jacques Martin. He's going to tell the Jackets tomorrow whether he accepts their offer to coach. It seems overly optimistic to hope he'll turn it down. A thirty-eight-year-old guy doesn't get approached to coach in the National Hockey League every day, and Columbus has a nice, quiet media and a yaffle of young, talented players to mold. The money and benefits beat the hell out of the AHL too.
Boucher is, by all accounts, something special. He's smart, well-educated, a great communicator and a creative systems guy. He even speaks the right language. He's young, and he understands the mindset of guys who grew up with the right to ask questions and have a say about the answers. He's everything the Canadiens need. Obviously, though, the team can't stand in the way of an employee's opportunity to advance his career. Assuming he makes the expected choice and goes to Columbus, we can always hope the stars will align and he'll somehow be available when it's time for Martin to go. That's a lot for which to hope.
That's why I think the Habs are failing themselves in a very important area. A coach sets the direction a team will follow, and if you want a winning team, you need a coach who's smart enough, passionate enough and empathetic enough to win. Guys like that aren't thick on the ground. When you find one, whom you know is right for your team, you have to work harder to keep him. Kirk Muller is a guy like that, but if he wants to be a head coach he'll eventually leave because Gauthier and his French-first mantra will stifle him. Guy Boucher is another one, but the Habs are doing nothing to retain him. I think, if he's as special a coach as we've been led to believe, the Habs need to take a chance with him. Move Martin up to the assistant GM job and hire Boucher now. Offer Boucher a ton of money and a promise he'll be Martin's successor in a year or two. Just do something.
I think a coach is just as important as any player on a team. You wouldn't let your a top prospect walk without at least trying to negotiate with him. When you find a guy who has the potential to be a really great coach, you can't let him go without trying to hold on to him either. The Habs should know this better than most teams. It's been a long time since they've had an all-star coach, and they've filled the role too many times with rookies who weren't right for the job aside from their bilingualism. When the chance to hang onto a promising young coach like Boucher comes, they need to jump at it.
Martin might be Gauthier's buddy, but no coach sticks around forever. When the Habs continue to play mediocre hockey, somebody's got to take the blame and Martin will eventually be moved up or out. When that day comes, you want a guy like Kirk Muller or Guy Boucher to be ready to step in. If those guys are allowed to go coach other teams, the Habs had better have a plan B ready. Coaching the Montreal Canadiens is a tough job and many guys have proven they can't handle it. It's as rare as finding a Jaro Halak in the ninth round of the draft to find a coach who can. The Habs have two of them, and are probably just going to let them go.
If that happens, who's going to be inspiring the team in next year's playoffs?