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Kirk Muller balances Michel Therrien

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Balance has been a buzz word in Marc Bergevin's press conference for a long time, and the move to bring in Kirk Muller as an associate coach is all about balance.

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We've been treated to a hefty portion of buzz words during the Marc Bergevin era in Montreal. The most common one is character, apparently an essential trait that all acquisitions must have, and when a player fails to show character the general manager is quick to act, just as Zack Kassian.

One of the most common buzz words Bergevin likes to use outside of character is balance. He used to use it a lot more when referring to the Canadiens' defense, balancing puck movers with physical players like Alexei Emelin and Douglas Murray, but that seems to have been abandoned for a heavy emphasis on mobile defensemen, to the team's great benefit.

Balance has been used as a defense for using Alex Galchenyuk on the wing, and any number of poor personnel decisions, but for the first time it's being applied to the coaching staff.

If you look at the Canadiens' coaching staff over the last three seasons, the biggest weaknesses you can see, and what you hear from players speaking on and off the record; is that the powerplay has been abysmal, and there's not enough communication between the coaching staff and players. Those are two areas where Muller not only excels, but is among the league's elite.

Muller's role in St. Louis over the last two seasons has largely involved being a buffer between Ken Hitchcock, who rides his players extremely hard, and the players. Hitchcock is known for having a short shelf life as a coach because of how he interacts with players, so having a facilitator like Muller to smooth things over and communicate more effectively was huge. If you listened to Mike Weaver's segments on TSN 690 this spring, you know that this is something the Canadiens need desperately.

As for the powerplay, let's just look at history.

Muller PP graph

Muller has run a team's powerplay for seven NHL seasons. He was also a head coach in Carolina for three seasons, but head coaches rarely run powerplays so we're not going to include those years for him. In the seven years that we know Muller was running powerplays, he was above league average all seven times, though in 2008-09 it was only by 0.5%. Six of those years, his powerplay was significantly higher than league average, five years it was above 20%.

In the five years since Muller left the Canadiens, they've had an above average powerplay just once, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. They've averaged a completion rate of just 16.4% over that time, an abysmal mark in a league where powerplay success is actually trending slightly upwards.

To encapsulate in real terms what Muller's hire does for the powerplay, consider it this way; take Muller's average powerplay completion rate and apply that to the Canadiens' powerplay opportunities over the previous five seasons, and how many extra goals to they get? I figured it would be something like five, which would be great, but it's actually 14.4 extra goals per season. In terms of goals, that would be like replacing David Desharnais last season with Taylor Hall or Phil Kessel, spending no extra cap space, losing nothing.

Hiring Muller to run the powerplay immediately transforms a weakness into a strength for the Canadiens, and if he can repair some of the relationships between the players and the head coach, getting everyone on the same page, this goes from a very good hire to a phenomenal one.

Learning from the best

It's important to note that Muller wasn't just hired as an assistant either. He has spent the last two seasons working with one of the best tactical coaches in the NHL, or as Muller put it; "One of the best coaches in the history of the NHL," in Ken Hitchcock. As an associate coach, Muller will have input beyond the powerplay and running the forwards during gameplay, he will have an impact on the tactics of the team, another area that Michel Therrien has struggled.

Considering that it was Therrien himself who pushed for the hiring of Muller, this also means it's more likely that he will be willing to listen to what Muller has to say, which could lead to more progressive, modern tactical choices, hopefully starting with the breakout, an area the St. Louis Blues absolutely dominated in the playoffs.

Not a replacement

One thing many fans are bringing up with this hire is that should the Canadiens stumble out of the gate, Therrien could be fired with Muller taking over the head coaching reigns, but don't count on that. What this hire does is support Michel Therrien, not undercut him. What the Canadiens have done here is essentially surrounded their head coach with a warm blanket, he felt the pressure last season at certain points, no matter what he said at the end of the season. Hiring someone like Muller to take care of the areas Therrien struggles in only makes him a better coach.

The Canadiens have made their bed with Therrien, and watched high end coaching candidates like Mike Babcock and Guy Boucher go to divisional rivals, so bolstering what they have simply makes more sense than any sort of risk management.

Michel Therrien is here to stay, but the coaching staff is significantly better now than it was last season.