It is hard to believe that it has been 2 full seasons already since Ron Francis was named the General Manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. We are still very much in the honeymoon phase and are just reaching the time when Francis will be able to build his team and be held accountable for it. The team that he inherited for the 2014-15 season offered minimal financial flexibility. With most of the roster locked in and budget only to add a few depth players, Francis set a strategy and course and importantly hired a head coach but did very little in terms of player personnel.
And even his second summer of 2015, he was still largely locked into the core of the roster. Awhile back on a different site, I called it the “2-year bridge” for Francis before he gained some financial flexibility in the summer of 2016 to start to shape the roster to his liking. With more than $20 million of salary coming off the books (Eric Staal, Cam Ward, John-Michael Liles, Kris Versteeg, Nathan Gerbe, etc.) this summer, Francis will finally be given a real opportunity to put his stamp on the roster.
So in that regard, any kind of evaluation of Ron Francis as a GM through 2 seasons is a bit like evaluating an NHL player’s game at the end of the first period. There is some data there to evaluate, but calling anything even close to final is premature. Or in baseball parlance, Francis is in the 2nd inning of a 9-inning game.
But that said, I still think it is interesting to both track through what he has done already to mold the team and also dip into assessing some of his moves thus far.
Let’s start with the history…
The summer of 2014
—Bill Peters. After what seemed to be a thorough search process, Francis’ first big move as Hurricanes GM was to complete a coaching transition by firing Kirk Muller and replacing him with Bill Peters. I would not say that Peters was completely off the board, but as an assistant he was not from the list of more recognized names with NHL experience. This move marked Francis’ first display of confidence to do his own assessment and not just go with the obvious. This trend has repeated itself.
—Haydn Fleury. I think the second most interesting move from Francis first few months on the job was the decision to draft Haydn Fleury at #7. Fleury was not out of place with that selection, but the move to take a defenseman early in the first round was a departure from Francis’ mentor Jim Rutherford who had a strong forward bias with early picks. This move again showed Francis independence and confidence to forge his own path.
As noted above, that first summer offered very little to assess Francis ability to build a team. At the NHL level, he added only 3 depth players (Tim Gleason, Brad Malone, Jay McClement) for a total of less than $3 million in annual salary.
The 2014-15 trade deadline
—Collecting futures. With the Hurricanes on the outside looking in on the playoff chase in February of 2015, Francis moved aggressively and decisively to add futures at the expense of players who were scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season. Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty and Tim Gleason netted first, third, fourth and fifth round draft choices plus prospect Roland McKeown who was a second round pick in the previous draft. When you add it up, Francis had nearly added an entire draft class to his prospect pool. He also backed up his early mantra which was building a deep prospect pool and strong system that could generate more consistent winning and playoff appearances.
The summer of 2015
After a very quiet first summer in the GM seat in 2014, the summer of 2015 offered the first glimpse of Ron Francis ability to build a team.
—James Wisniewski and Eddie Lack. In a pair of draft weekend deals, Francis made his first 2 big moves to add players. First Francis added goalie Eddie Lack. Then he used goalie Anton Khudobin to land blue line help in James Wisniewski. The moves attempted to fill a hole on the blue line and upgrade the team in net.
—The draft and Sebastian Aho. The biggest story of the 2015 draft from a Canes perspective at the time was the pick of Noah Hanifin at #5. He was the obvious choice when still available at #5, so I do not think there is too much to read into the selection from Francis’ standpoint. But while everyone was still celebrating the Hanifin selection from day 1, what happened next did say something about Francis. With their second round pick, the Hurricanes took Sebastian Aho. I would not say that he was completely off the board and out of nowhere, but he seemed to rank from roughly where the Canes selected him all the way to the bottom of the top 100 depending on whose rankings one was looking at. There were other players available who more consistently ranked in the top 50, and there also seemed to be a reasonable chance that if Francis passed on Aho in the second round that he could still be available later. (It is important to note that the Hurricanes included their third round pick in the deal to obtain Eddie Lack from Vancouver.) The Aho selection was similar to the selection of Bill Peters as coach. Both were assertive moves that differed a bit from what might have been the more predictable decision.
—Alexander Semin buy out. In another assertive and decisive move, Ron Francis bought out Alexander Semin just before the opening of free agency. The move incurred an expensive $2.3 million cost for each of the next 6 seasons and left another hole in the forward lines but marked another aggressive move to build the team Francis wanted and quickly move forward from any mistakes.
—Out with Jeff Daniels and in with Mark Morris. Another under the headlines move of significance was an AHL decision for Francis. He made the decision not to re-sign Jeff Daniels to coach Charlotte and instead to go a different direction which later became veteran Mark Morris. The move was significant in that Jeff Daniels was a long-time company man for the Hurricanes and not at all odds with the brain trust in Raleigh. He was also a former Francis’ team mate. But Francis moved aggressively again to get the best he could to coach and develop the team’s prospects 1 level below the NHL in spite of having to shake the boat a bit to do so.
—Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom and more! Then with the summer winding down and the possibility that the roster is set, Ron Francis pulled off his smartest trade to date. With the Blackhawks running out of time and options and needing to move salary to re-sign Marcus Kruger and still get under the cap ceiling for opening day, Ron Francis took advantage of the situation. Francis managed to get proven playmaking depth forward Kris Versteeg and young fringe AHL/NHL depth forward Joakim Nordstrom from Chicago. But the magic of the deal was that he more or less made Chicago pay to unload these players. The Canes did give up an AHL defenseman in Dennis Robertson, a fifth round pick and Jake Massie who was a sixth round pick just 2 months earlier but in return, the Canes also netted a third round pick from Chicago which was arguably more valuable than the small collection of lesser futures that they gave up. This move was nearly 1 year from the previous season’s pick up of Andrej Nestrasil off of waivers from Detroit that also saw Francis take advantage of another team’s depth and specific situation.
—First foray into roster player contracts. The summer of 2015 also saw Francis’ first significant foray into the handling of re-signing (or not) current roster players. Early in the summer, he made commitments to young depth players Chris Terry, Riley Nash, Andrej Nestrasil and Michal Jordan when he awarded each a 1-way deal that almost assured that they would play at the NHL level for the 2015-16 season. He then extended both Eddie Lack and Elias Lindholm with 2-year deals before the last year of their remaining contract. And maybe most significant on the contract front was that Francis did not extend Eric Staal (or Cam Ward) who were both entering the final year of their long-term deals.
The 2015-16 trade deadline
—Second verse, same as the first. With the Hurricanes still within striking distance of the NHL playoffs heading into the last week of February of 2016, the burning question was if and how much Francis would be a seller. Keeping with the previous winter’s theme of building for the long-term, Francis again and somewhat surprisingly sold everything that was not nailed down. Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles yielded 2 second round picks, a third round pick, a fifth round pick and 2 prospects recently drafted in the second (Valentin Zykov) and third round (Aleksi Saarela). For the second consecutive consecutive trade deadline, Francis added nearly the equivalent of a full draft class to the Carolina Hurricanes prospect pool.
I think when you sort through the details of Ron Francis’ first 2 years as the Carolina Hurricanes GM, 3 key trends stand out:
1) A strategy and commitment to building a deep and strong prospect pool.
–At both trade deadlines, Francis moved aggressively to sell everything he could to collect futures and has spent them (really only Lack trade) sparingly.
–Letting Jeff Daniels go to hire Mark Morris was another move that valued the development of prospects highly.
–In total, Francis has netted 7 draft picks and 3 prospects in trades.
2) An ability to think and act independently of the consensus.
–Hiring an assistant with zero NHL coaching experience in Bill Peters was not completely off the board but did stray from the possibly safer play of picking from the 2-4 options with more experience.
–Drafting Haydn Fleury early in the first round was a marked departure from his predecessor and mentor Jim Rutherford and a very early sign that Francis would do things his way.
–Moving aggressively to select Sebastian Aho early in the second round instead of going with more of a consensus top 40 player was an assertive bet on the Canes scouting team.
3) A confidence and willingness to act assertively and decisively.
–The move to cut ties with Alexander Semin was an assertive move to make a decision and act on it. With the Canes nowhere near the cap ceiling and short at the forward position, financially Francis could have waited this out another season. Instead, he acted decisively to move the team forward.
–Both trade deadlines showed a willingness to act decisively. Especially with the playoffs in sight last season, the decision on how aggressively to sell players to collect futures was harder. Francis mulled it over but in the end acted assertively to add as many futures as possible.
Part 2 of this short series (hopefully for tomorrow) will offer an assessment of Francis’ work so far through 2 full seasons.