Monday, June 22, 2009

Kirk Muller

When Mario Lemieux was drafted 1st overall in 1984, it was pretty much unanimous that he was the obvious first choice. He was to be the next great franchise player. The only player who anyone thought had a chance at knocking off big Mario for that top pick was Kirk Muller, who went 2nd to New Jersey.

"To me, Kirk Muller is the best player in the draft. The Devils really did it right," said a young Detroit Red Wings scout Neil Smith, years before he became a NHL general manager.

Many scouts might have agreed that Muller was in many ways better than Lemieux in some respects at that stage of their careers. NHL drafts are crap shoots at the best of times. While most accurately called Lemieux a can't miss prospect, history is full of stories of scoring superstars either being boom or bust. Obviously he was boom - a very loud boom!

Muller on the other hand was considered a safe pick. He had some good offensive tools, but nowhere near the upside of Mario. He was a tireless worker, and physical forward, a versatile leader who would and did do anything to win. It was thought that he may not score 50 goals or 100 points, but he'd give his all, give his heart and soul.

Though he was no Mario, Muller certainly did not disappoint. Desire and determination became his NHL trademarks, and made him an outstanding leader. He would hustle right until the final buzzer no matter what the score was. He was at times perhaps too intense and put undue pressure on himself to do better when his team was going through a slump.

Muller excelled at the physical game, especially along the boards and in traffic. He'd bang and crash - hell he'd bust down a door without bothering to check if it was even locked. He was absolute tiger in the corners, and the best part was he had the hand skills to do something with the pucks he retrieved.

Though not a natural talent in terms of finesse abilities, Kirk got good mileage from his somewhat limited arsenal. He had a quick shot and good hand/eye coordination - which made him good on faceoffs - but was not a great on-the-rush player. He excelled in a heavy forechecking/heavy puck cycling attack and at crashing the front of the net.

Kirk finished his amateur career by representing Canada in the 1984 Olympics. A junior star with the OHL's Guelph Platers, Muller joined the National team late in the year and had a strong Olympic tournament, scoring twice in 7 games.

Starting with his rookie season in 1984-85, Kirk gave his heart and soul to the Devils (pardon the pun) for 7 strong seasons. Within time his on-ice leadership helped turn around one of the league's weakest franchises.

Kirk scored 17 goals and 37 assists as a rookie and was the Devil's All-Star Game representative, something he'd do 6 times before his career was over. In 1985-86, Muller tallied 25 goals and 41 assists during the season.

Kirk became "Captain Kirk" after being named team captain in 1987-88 and he responded by setting a team record and career-best with 94 points. More importantly, for the first time since the franchise was transferred to Jersey, he led the Devil's into the playoffs. Also backed by Sean Burke's strong goaltending and John MacLean's dramatic game winning goal in game 80 of the regular season, the Devils squeaked into the playoffs. Once in the "big dance," the Devils went on a Cinderella run before running into Boston in the Final Four. Muller scored 4 goals and 12 points in 20 post season contests.

The Devils missed the playoffs in 1989 unfortunately, but Kirk had another strong year, scoring 31 goals and 74 points. He then led the Devils with 56 assists and 86 points in 1989-90.

Kirk showed some signs of slowing down just a bit in 1990-91. He dipped to 19 goals but still added his annual 51 assists for 70 respectable points. He had a poor offensive playoff however, scoring just 2 assists in 7 games. By this time the Devils were becoming a very respectable team, but lacked a true offensive game breaker. In order to get one, they traded their team captain, who they were having trouble re-signing, along with backup goalie Rollie "The Goalie" Melanson to Montreal in exchange for streaky scorer Stephane Richer and checker Tom Chorske.

The trade was good for both teams, but especially Montreal. In 1991-92, Kirk led the Canadiens with 36 goals, 77 points, 15 power play goals, and seven game-winning goals, earning him his fifth NHL All-Star Game selection.

In 1992-93 He tied his career-bests with 37 goals, assists with 57 and points with 94. He also was part of a splendid Habs Cup run in 1993. It was the Habs 24th Stanley Cup championship of the century, and Kirk's first and only.

By 1994-95, Kirk was named captain of the Canadiens. However after just 33 games and 19 points, he was traded with Mathieu Schneider and Craig Darby to the Islanders in exchange for Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov, on April 5, 1995.

Kirk made it very clear that he didn't want to play for the New York Islanders. After 15 games in 1995-96, walked out on the team to force a trade. On Jan. 23, 1996, Kirk was involved in a three-team trade that resulted in him becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf, and reuniting him with former Habs coach Pat Burns.

Perhaps showing his age a bit, Muller wasn't able to produce like the Leafs had hoped. He scored 20 goals in 1996-97, but was slowing as his the miles added up on his weary legs.. On March 18, 1997, the Leafs traded him to the Florida Panthers for youngster Jason Podollan.

Kirk became a leader in the Florida dressing room, but unlike his previous stops, it was not so much on the ice where he contributed. He played a minor role as his offensive contributions completely dried up. Although he still battled in the corners like a hungry animal, he wasn't as effective. His battle weary body didn't measure up with the new age of bigger, stronger defensemen.

By the summer of 1999, Muller was released by the Panthers. He found a home in Dallas for the next 4 years, extending his career to a total of 19 seasons.

In that time Muller played in 1349 games, scoring 357 goals and 959 points. He was a greatly respected hockey warrior in every city he played in, and will be best remembered for his years in New Jersey and Montreal.


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