As you know, the New Jersey Devils weren't always the strong franchise that they were for the better part of the last two decades. They weren't good at all when they were originally the Kansas City Scouts. They remained pretty awful as the Colorado Rockies. They didn't get much better when they initially moved to the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Ruthersford, New Jersey. The franchise only made the playoffs once, and that was because of an incredibly weak Smythe Division that a 19-40-21 Rockies team got in. It would be five long seasons of fifth and sixth place finishes in the Patrick Division before they would return. It would take a collection of talent to come together for the Devils to even make the playoffs for the first time in New Jersey, much less make it consistently. It would take someone like Kirk Muller to lead the way. Oh, how he led.
While the Devils have been acquiring young players like Ken Daneyko (1979), Aaron Broten (1981), Pat Verbeek (1983), Bruce Driver, and John MacLean (1984), Muller made an instant impact in New Jersey. The 1984 NHL Entry Draft was and has been known as the Mario Lemieux Draft. The Devils and the Penguins were horrid, and New Jersey made the decision not to tank for the 6'4", 200+ pound scoring machine out of Laval. It wouldn't have been my choice, but I can always respect the notion of "You play to win the game" regardless of situation. Therefore, the Devils went second overall and picked Kirk Muller from Guelph. The 18 year old wasn't particularly big, but he was known for being a fierce competitor in addition to his scoring ways. As Joe Pelletier explained in his biography of Muller at Greatest Hockey Legends, he was the safer pick than Lemieux though without as much upside.
While Lemeiux dropped 100 points in 1984-85 in the first of a 17-season career, Muller made a lesser but still immediate impact in New Jersey. Muller scored 17 goals and 37 assists while participating in all 80 games right out of junior. His 51 points would put him fourth on the team in scoring, fourth in the NHL in scoring among all first-year players, and was even named to the All Star Game along with . It was a very good rookie season and a sign of things to come from Muller. It wasn't so much he had a poor shot, but Muller tended to be the straw that stirred the drink. He also was quite good on defense; he wasn't an offense-only player. He showed at age 18 that he could be a feature part of the team and he quickly became one.
Muller improved in terms of production and importance in following seasons. He donned the #9 most fans would be familiar with in New Jersey in 1985-86 and improved to 25 goals, 41 assists, and 168 shots. Muller finished second on the team in scoring behind Greg Adams and he was also the sole Devils representative in the 1986 All Star Game. In 1986-87, Muller did even more and started playing with wingers Pat Verbeek and Aaron Broten more and more. The trio benefited with each other's talents as they all hit then-career highs. Muller finished behind Broten for the team lead in scoring, but he improved to 26 goals and 50 assists. He also demonstrated how he could dish out pain physically with 75 PIM. Keep in mind, Muller turned 21 during that season so he was still very much a developing player. At the same time, he was an important part of the team and his importance would only grow.
As the 1987-88 season began, the Devils needed a new captain. Their last captain, Mel Bridgman, was traded to Detroit in March 1987 and that left a vacancy. Despite being only 21, Muller has proven his worth in four seasons with the Devils. Therefore, Muller was named the captain, their third in New Jersey's history. To say he did well with the 'C' on his jersey would be an understatement. Captain Kirk set a career high in goals, assists, and shots in 1987-88 with 37 goals, 57 assists, and 213 shots. He led the team on the ice and on the scoresheet as no other Devil came close to his 94 points. Not unlike Patrik Elias driving the A Line, Muller's standout season certainly helped Aaron Broten get to 83 points and Pat Verbeek to a then-team record 46 goals. His intense play didn't waver, if anything he took it a bit far at times given his 114 PIM. Muller was a power play beast with 17 power play goals, also a career high. Most of all, he led his team to the playoffs for the first time in New Jersey. Muller wasn't as productive in the postseason, but in the Devils' run to the Wales Conference Championship round, he did put up four goals and eight assists - which isn't bad. Nevertheless, Muller was the stand out player on a team that got enough talent together as a core and enough breaks to get into the postseason.
However, the 1988 playoff run would not be followed up with another one in 1989. The 1988-89 Devils took several steps back and missed the postseason by quite a bit. Nevertheless, Muller remained a superlative player for the team. John MacLean really broke out in 1988-89, so Muller's 31 goals and 43 assists put him second on the team in scoring. Muller was still feisty, as suggested by his 119 PIM. His shooting percentage didn't drop off a cliff, though he shot the puck less. Things just didn't come together as well; and not nearly as well for the team as a whole. It was still a good year for him, though. 1989-90 would better for him and the team. Muller took fewer penalties, scored 30 goals, added 56 assists, finished first on the team in scoring again, returned to the All Star Game, and (most importantly) returned to the playoffs. The Devils were eliminated in the first round by Washington, and Muller chipped in a goal and three assists in six games.
In 1990-91, luck definitely wasn't on Muller's shooting side. So far with the Devils, Muller shot at least 10.8% - his shoot percentage as a rookie. In following seasons, his percentage was much higher in the 15-17% range. Muller was seemingly snake-bit as he shot at a 8.9% rate in 1990-91. So even though he set a then-career high of 221 shots, he only scored 19 goals. He did contribute 51 assists, so Muller's 70 points was still good for second highest on the team behind John MacLean. Even if the shots weren't falling, Muller made plays on offense as well as is in his own end. However, Muller's postseason wouldn't be so notable with only two assists in seven games as New Jersey was eliminated by eventual champions. It's strange to consider a 25-year old captain putting up 70 points as a somewhat frustrating season, but that's what happens when your shooting percentage takes a nose dive.
That 1990-91 season would be Muller's last in New Jersey. Before the 1991-92 season began, Muller and goalie Roland Melanson was traded to Montreal for Stephane Richer and Tom Chorske. Joe Pelletier's biographical post on Muller noted that the trade was made to bring in more offense for New Jersey. That would explain why the return was Richer. You have to trade talent to get it and so they did. The trade turned out to be beneficial for both teams as well as Muller. Richer may have been streaky but he definitely gave the Devils offense another weapon in four of his five seasons with the team. The Canadiens got a hard working center who immediately became their top scorer in 1991-92. Muller matched his career highs in goals, assists, and points with 37 goals and 57 assists in 1992-93. Of course, his big highlight from that season would be Montreal's 1993 Stanley Cup run. He scored 10 goals and 7 assists to finish second on the team in playoff scoring; and he scored the eventual Cup winning goal in Game 5 over Los Angeles. It was clearly his most successful season in his career.
It would also be the peak. Muller had a good year in 1993-94 and it appeared he'd stay in Montreal after being named team captain in 1994-95. However, he was traded away during that season to the Islanders. He wasn't particularly productive (or happy) there and eventually was moved to Toronto in the following season. While his time in Toronto in the 1995-96 season looked quite good, the 1996-97 showed that Muller's productive days were fading. The 30-year old was still a strong two-way player, but like many players, time has worn on him. He still had enough to play at the NHL level for six more seasons. Muller would become a veteran presence for Florida and later Dallas to finish out his career in more limited roles. Still, by all accounts, he had one excellent career. In more recent years, Muller has got into coaching and he's now the head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.
After Muller was traded in 1991, the Devils continued to make the playoffs regularly with two exceptions and won three Cups. He has become sort of an afterthought since his seven seasons with the Devils were still in those older days. While the Devils finally managed to make the playoffs, he was the captain of an era where they were transitioning to becoming a playoff regular. If you were a fan in those days, then you probably loved (and maybe you still do) Muller's contributions. He led the way. To someone like me, who wasn't around then, he's a part of a past that has been later out-shined by future teams. Muller absolutely deserves appreciation for being one of those key players that helped take the Devils out of dregs of missing the playoffs.
He definitely deserves it for his production alone. Muller clearly was a top producer almost right out of the draft for New Jersey. In 556 regular season games, Muller scored 185 goals and racked up 335 assists. His 520 points puts him third all-time among all skaters in franchise history. The first skater behind Muller is Scott Niedermayer with 44 fewer points; the first forward behind Muller is Bobby Holik with 46 fewer points. Very few players have put up nearly as many points with the Devils as Muller. Only John MacLean and Patrik Elias has produced more points that Muller in franchise history. Moreover, Muller's rate of 0.935 points per game is second all-time only to Lanny MacDonald's two seasons with Colorado, where he put up 141 points in 142 games. In short, Muller was a fantastic scorer for New Jersey. I wish I had some better examples than this one goal he scored, but apparently old fights are far more available on YouTube than goals or other highlights.
He proved he was ready for the NHL right out of junior and demonstrated his value on both sides of the puck. He became Captain Kirk after three seasons in the league. As he improved, he oversaw a squad that improved to make it's first ever trip to the playoffs. That same team missed it the following season, but then got back in for the next two that began a six-season playoff streak. While Muller didn't see what New Jersey would become, he undoubtedly helped them on the path to get there.