By Bob Crawford
Centerman Chris Mueller brought nearly 400 games of pro experience with him when he signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers July 1, and he is fresh off of a 2013-14 season that was full of highlights.
In his sixth pro campaign, and his first with the Dallas Stars organization after four years in the Nashville Predators’ system, Mueller scored 25 goals and had 57 points in 60 AHL games with the Texas Stars last year, got his first taste of NHL playoff action with Dallas, and helped lead the Texas club all the way to its first Calder Cup championship.
“It was great,” Mueller said of his 2013-14 ride, in an interview after a Ranger training camp skate. “Going to a different organization for the first time in four years, a little nervous, just don’t know anybody, not even like security guards at the rink or the equipment manager, so just getting to know everybody in Dallas and down in Austin (where the AHL Stars are based), they’re first-class, just great people. And we started winning right away in Austin, that makes things good, and I got my handful of games with the big club. I was up and down a lot, then I finished with Dallas in playoffs, and that was an experience, my first NHL playoff experience.
“I can’t say enough about Dallas, the staff and, even more so, the team, the guys. I still stay in contact with them, they’re great people, and then to go all the way in Austin was just awesome. You always want to be in the NHL, but when you get into playoffs in the American League it’s like playing in the NHL, and you want to keep winning. It’s a great place to be, it’s great weather down there, so it was a special year for all of us.”
Mueller had played 46 regular-season games of NHL action by the end of last year, but had never before experienced playoff action. That changed when Dallas called him up for the last four games of their first-round series against Anaheim, which the Ducks ended up winning in six games.
“It’s definitely more intense,” Mueller said of the major-league postseason atmosphere. “Every game in the NHL is intense and it’s high-paced, and it’s pretty special when you’re out there and you take advantage of your opportunity. But being in playoffs, especially in Dallas since it was our first playoffs in six years, and our building, it was pretty crazy down there, and the city really rallied behind us. Great fan base, it was one of the loudest buildings I’ve ever played in. Games Three and Four, when we won those games, it was pretty special, and just to see the intensity and the approach, the way the guys approach the game up here (the NHL) is unbelievable, but in playoffs it’s even a little different level, and it’s pretty special to be a part of.”
After that adventure, it was back to Cedar Park, the Austin suburb where the Texas Stars make their home, for Mueller, and the thrills kept on coming. After sweeping Oklahoma City in three games in the first round, Texas beat defending-champion Grand Rapids in six games in the second round, won a seven-game thriller over Toronto in the Western Conference Finals and then knocked off St. John’s in a five-game Final, winning the last three games in overtime to capture the Calder Cup.
“It was awesome,” was Mueller’s assessment of his time with the AHL Stars. “Cedar Park, they do a great job down there. We probably averaged 5,500 fans a game and I think it seats 6,000. So it’s a pretty special place to play, great following, great arena, great people and great weather. That’s always a positive, and it keeps your spirit up. I have nothing but great things to say, and it was a really special year.”
Now, Mueller changes organizations for the second time in two years, and after his entire pro career has been under the banner of Western Conference NHL teams with Western Conference AHL affiliates, he will move his act east. He will either be skating in Manhattan for the Rangers or in downtown Hartford for the Wolf Pack, and that represents a homecoming of sorts for Mueller.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “I’ve already met some great people and continue to meet good people, and being originally from Buffalo, New York, obviously I’m very familiar with the area and familiar with the Rangers. It’s a lot closer to home for my family.
“I’m basically an East Coast kid, so it’s no real change for me, except for the team I play on, but obviously with the success they (the Rangers) had last year, and their looking to build upon that and turn the page and continue that success, I’m excited to be a part of it.”
And, after adding last year’s Calder Cup to the NCAA title he won as a collegian at Michigan State (in 2006-07), and making his NHL playoff debut, what does Mueller see as the next step in his career?
“Hopefully become an NHL regular, hopefully crack this (the Ranger) lineup,” he responded. “That’s my goal coming out of training camp, hopefully stay here and see the success the Rangers had last year. Obviously the final goal is the Stanley Cup, but my first goal, before I get ahead of myself, is to establish myself as a regular in the NHL. And hopefully I do that with this camp.”
In addition to whatever further strides he can make in his own career, Mueller has taken some joy as a fan, in the fact that his hometown Buffalo Bills have been purchased by Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. That was after a group fronted by rock star Jon Bon Jovi had been close to buying the NFL team, and was rumored to be planning to relocate the Bills to Toronto.
“It’s awesome,” enthused Mueller about the Pegula purchase. “I was going to boycott Bon Jovi, I can tell you that, along with the whole city of Buffalo. But it’s great that they’re going to stay there, they’re so important to Western New York. And I’m pretty much a die-hard Bills fan and we started 2-0, so now we all think we’re going to the Super Bowl. So I’m going to stay on that bandwagon for sure.”
photo credit: dallasstars.com