In part 1 of this 2-part Hurricanes blog from yesterday, I detailed the moves Ron Francis had made in the 2 years since being named the Carolina Hurricanes general manager. I also noted 3 key trends from the early stages of Ron Francis’ time at the controls of the Hurricanes.
If you were away for the holiday weekend, you can find part 1 HERE.
In this second part, I will take an early shot at evaluating Ron Francis’ performance so far. As mentioned in the first post, it is very important to note that any evaluation is very preliminary. Inheriting a team that was largely fixed and minus much for budget or roster flexibility, Francis’ impact of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 rosters was minimal. With more than $20 million in salary coming off the books this summer, the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes will be the first team that you can truly consider Ron Francis’ work.
Preliminary natures and limitations aside, here is my evaluation of Ron Francis’ first 2 years of work:
Strategy and importantly sticking to strategy
From the very beginning, Ron Francis’ mantra was building from within, increasing depth and quality in the system and making a return to the playoffs on top of a strong foundation and sustainable model. In this regard, Francis has been impeccable in his ability to follow through on the verbal plan.
Stocking the prospect pool
When the 2014-15 season did not work out, Francis sold off assets and basically added another full draft class to his prospect pool. The years varied, but he he collected first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth round picks during the season and also prospect Roland McKeown who was a 2014 second-rounder. Only a seventh round pick is missing to make it a complete set of 7 draft picks.
When you net out the trades before and during the 2015-16 season, the result is similar. The net gain for the Hurricanes prospect pool from all trades is 2 second round picks, 1 third round pick and also 2013 second-rounder Valentin Zykov and 2015 third-rounder Aleksi Saarela and subtraction of a seventh rounder. The total is 5 net adds of the second and third round variety offset only by a single seventh-rounder which is the equivalent of adding most of another draft class to the prospect pool.
Committing to prospect development
The willingness to go outside the organization to hire Mark Morris to coach the Charlotte Checkers showed a commitment to the best possible development for these players once they enter the Hurricanes organization.
With the short tenure by Morris, it is difficult to read too much into the 2015-16 season, but the early returns are promising. After watching a generation of good AHL players in the Canes prospect pool struggle mightily to transition into meaningful roles at the NHL level, the 2015-16 season was a pleasant surprise. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce saw very limited AHL seasoning but did see the AHL before stepping successfully into the NHL. Perhaps the more significant data point is Phil Di Giuseppe how arrived later in the NHL season and had spent more time in Charlotte. Here is hoping that the positive results in 2015-16 are a trend and not random event.
All in all, I do not see how you could give Francis anything short of an A at this early juncture when you consider the plan, ability to execute and stick with it and also investment in other areas to boost its success.
Step by step Francis has made numerous moves to boost the strength of the team around him. The headline is his decisive move to go with Bill Peters despite his lack of NHL head coaching experience. It is still early, but that move looks good right now. Less headline-worthy has been a constant string of smaller moves to build out a stronger team for the new world NHL that goes much deeper than an NHL head coaching decision.
The calendar goes:
June 2014: Bill Peters named head coach.
July 2014: Don Waddell hired to run the business operations enabling Ron Francis to focus on the hockey team.
July 2015: Mark Morris named Charlotte Checkers head coach.
August 2015: Eric Tulsky (who had already been working with the team) brought on board full time to lead statistical team.
Along the way, Francis also made additions to the scouting staff that included former NHLers Ray Whitney, Joe Niewendyk and Jeff Daniels.
Ultimately, the final grade comes from the results, but Francis’ efforts to build a deeper team is encouraging and a necessity for today’s NHL. Though my review of Waddell’s performance is quite mixed, it does enable Francis to offload a major set of responsibilities and focus on building a winning hockey team. Big exam results pending, the early homework assignments earn an A.
Building the roster externally
Again, Francis’ ability to add players from outside has been extremely limited by the roster and budget situation that he inherited. In the summer of 2014, he added only depth players Jay McClement, Tim Gleason and Brad Malone. All were inexpensive additions who had decent 2014-15 seasons but were not the difference-makers needed to boost the team up the standings.
The summer of 2015 saw a bit more work. Francis added James Wisniewski to fill a hole on the blue line and add puck and offensive skills to the back end. Wisniewski’s injury in the first game of the season short circuited this move before it could even be evaluated. Francis also added Eddie Lack and moved Anton Khudobin. This move did not work as hoped. Lack had a rocky start to the 2015-16 season and though he was better in the second half of the season, never really took the reins and made the team better. His best move was easily the coupe that saw him capitalize on the Blackhawks salary cap issues to get Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom and a third round pick for a collection of 3 futures all lower than the third round pick obtained.
The Versteeg trade is incredibly encouraging, but with the Eddie Lack miss (so far, but it’s early) and limited moves, I will simply call this incomplete with the first big exam coming up this summer.
Handling of current player contracts
Ron Francis’ biggest moves with regard to negotiating with/re-signing roster players are probably the moves he did not make. He reportedly negotiated with multiple of the players ultimately traded at the trade deadline including Jiri Tlusty and Andrej Sekera in 2015 and then Eric Staal in 2016 (though those negotiations did not seem to go far). In all cases, he avoided doing a deal that he did not think was a good 1 and instead moved assertively to collect futures to fill the prospect pool.
In terms of players he did sign, I think this is arguably where Francis grades most poorly thus far. When Chris Terry and Michal Jordan emerged from the 2014-15 season as the best young depth players from the group who started the season trying to win open roster spots. Possibly unnecessarily (could both have been signed to 2-way contracts?), Francis committed to both with 1-way contracts. Neither really grew into a significant role in the 2015-16 season. In addition, Francis moved aggressively to extend newly-obtained Eddie Lack and also young Elias Lindholm past the 1 year still remaining on their contracts. The thought to lock both in for a lower cost made sense on the front end, but neither deal worked out. Eddie Lack’s $2.75 million and 2-year commitment suddenly look expensive after his 2015-16 season. There would be risk entering the summer with zero goalies under contract, but I would actually take the $2.75 million and flexibilty to fill 2 spots not 1 right now if I could. In addition, Lindholm’s 2015-16 season was marginally if any better than his 2014-15 campaign. He would obviously be re-signed and kept this summer, but he might actually be cheaper than his 2-year $2.75 million deal coming off a 39-point season. Hindsight being 20/20, the player to sign early last summer would have been Victor Rask who made step-wise improvements in terms of play and production in 2015-16 and will cost more this summer because of it.
This is another category where the big exam is coming this summer, but for 2 early quizzes, I give Francis an A for showing restraint on not feeling the need to re-sign players if the deal is not right (a problem with Rutherford at times) but a C for his decisions in terms of contracts last summer.
The one potential flaw to watch
Overall, my early thoughts on Ron Francis’ work so far matches that of most of the Canes fans that I talk to. I am encouraged by the strategy and commitment to it and his early decisions.
But I do think the contract situations from last summer are something to keep an eye on. He seemed to have a tendency to project the future and then bet on it, possibly earlier and more than necessary. In the case of Chris Terry and Michal Jordan, he (and probably to some degree the coaching staff) projected these players to be important role players on the 2015-16 team. That projection was not unreasonable, but my thought is that both of these players might have been signed to 2-way contracts. With that, they could still fill the role expected, but if it did not work out (which it really did not), Francis would have had the flexibility to punt on plan A and try someone else without being locked into an NHL salary for each. Important to note is that the magnitude of these decisions was very small for sub-$1 million 1-way contracts.
The next level of the same thing was Francis’ decision to re-up with both Eddie Lack and Elias Lindholm. The logic was obviously that he might save some money by locking in before the 2015-16 season if these players had strong seasons. Again, he acted early and aggressively on his projection that had both of these players taking on significant roles in the 2015-16 season. Had these players had great seasons, he would have saved money on the next contract. But the risk is the reverse. Especially in the case of Eddie Lack, I think Francis overestimated the ability to project performance for a goalie changing teams and stepping into a new environment. I think the same is true to a lesser extent with Lindholm. I think the same is true to a lesser extent with Elias Lindholm too. At this early stage of his career, he would certainly be re-signed for 2016-17 and beyond, it would likely have been for less had Francis waited until this summer.
The 4 moves highlighted are relatively low $ amounts and only 1 or 2-year deals with limited downside, but this same kind of projecting the future and committing to it is an element in some of the crazy deals that see GMs lock themselves into long-term contracts for huge $ that become financial albatrosses and limit long-term success in today’s salary cap NHL.
I love the direction from Francis so far especially the aim and commitment to building a deeper prospect pool.
The only negative so far is a few early, small misses from projecting the future and then committing to it maybe too much and before necessary.
Though early impressions and results are favorable, the big exam grades will only start rolling in after we see what Francis does with some real budget this summer and what it means for the 2016-17 season and beyond.