When the calendar flips to 2018 in just over a week, the Hurricanes will be 38 games into the 2017-18 season. That is a few games short of the official midway point but close enough to start doing that type of evaluation.
The honeymoon begins
Three and a half years ago, Ron Francis inherited a team that was near the bottom of the NHL both in terms of current season and also the future based on system rankings.
As a familiar face with a tremendous on-ice contribution to the organization, all Francis had to do to be well-received was say anything that the fans could interpret to mean a positive future was on the way.
Francis’ mantra in that regard from the very beginning was that his goal was to build a team that not just returned to the playoffs but also became a regular entrant and true Cup contender. The plan made sense given the state of the team he inherited and the realities of a small market team. Though the word “rebuilding” was probably never uttered directly by Francis, he pretty clearly charted that course when he stated his strategy/plan and also when he followed through repeatedly by eschewing opportunities to make short-term fixes and instead sold veteran assets at every opportunity to stock the prospect pool and system.
Not to discount the merit of Francis’ original plan, but by taking the reins when the team was at a low point, he entered at an incredibly easy point for ‘before any results can be measured’ type of evaluations.
The process plays out over three long years
To be clear, though the marketing and early evaluation part of it was easy, I think Francis’ original plan was the right one and only viable one for a successful long-term future. More significantly, he deserves even more credit for his ability to avoid the temptation of short-term fixes and instead being steadfast in his commitment to the long-term. The first two years were hard on the ice, but Francis was unwavering in his commitment to rebuilding.
In his first summer as general manager and staring at team that was 25th in the NHL during the previous season and incredibly lacking in terms of depth, he moved to add Jay McClement, Brad Malone and Tim Gleason during the summer. His biggest move was to part ways with coach Kirk Muller and bring aboard Bill Peters.
The trade deadline marked the second round of committing to the rebuild. With the potential to either trade or re-sign a handful of players, Francis aggressively sold any and all players who were scheduled to become free agents parting ways with Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty and Tim Gleason.
The 2015-16 season charted a similar course. Francis again steered clear of big name, big dollar free agents. He made a move to add a goalie in Eddie Lack and a shrewd move to add Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom from the salary cap-strapped Blackhawks for virtually nothing. The trade deadline again saw Francis sell everything that was not bolted down. Most significant was the departure of Eric Staal, but also traded were John-Michael Liles and Kris Versteeg. The team improved step-wise from 2014-15 to 2015-16 but still was not really a playoff contender when the trade deadline arrived.
Despite the step-wise improvement in the 2015-16 season and the early emergence of a young blue line, Francis against held steadfast to the patient version of a rebuild during the offseason before the 2016-17 season. Francis did add more skilled youth to the mix when he added Teuvo Teravainen, again capitalizing on the Blackhawks’ financial challenges. But past that, the rest of the summer featured another small batch of under the radar depth acquisitions in the form of Lee Stempniak, Viktor Stalberg and Matt Tennyson. On the ice, the season was somewhat similar to the 2015-16 season. The Hurricanes struggled early and then surged late but never quite pushed up into true playoff contention because of the slow start.
The end of the honeymoon
During the honeymoon phase of Ron Francis’ time as general manager, evaluations were fairly easy. Measuring his progress had simply to do with assessing how well he was sticking to his plan and whether there was enough evidence to suggest that the fuzzy and unpredictable future could be positive.
But eventually, the evaluation of a general manager on a yearly basis is less subjectively measured by how well his team performs on the ice. In that regard, making the playoffs is a baseline requirement for a good season.
And though the Hurricanes rebuild is very much a work in progress, we have officially reached the point in Ron Francis’ tenure when evaluation of his performance will much more so be based on whether the team made the playoffs and to some degree how well it did once in those playoffs.
Against that backdrop, I think Francis entered the most recent offseason with a different objectives and also metrics for how his work would be graded at the end of the season. There is always a balance to making moves to win in the here and now versus continuing to invest in the future, but after a 90/10 split in favor of investing in the future for three years, Francis’ fourth season as general manager requires a significant shift to a more balanced split of priorities and with it a different mentality as a general manager.
The offseason prior to the 2017-18 season
The team entered the offseason before the 2017-18 with eight consecutive playoff misses but also significantly with a team that had improved in terms of NHL depth, financial structure, development system and even on-ice results even if only marginally in that last measure.
Shortly after the 2016-17 season concluded, Francis talked about the need to add offensive talent to the team and improvement the team’s goaltending. He moved assertively early in the offseason to add Scott Darling and simultaneously cut ties with Eddie Lack to address the goaltending need. That seemingly put the ball on the tee for Francis to make one more big move to boost the offense. With names like Matt Duchene, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Galchenyuk and others expected to be available via trade, options seemed to be available. But when the dust settled on the 2017-18 offseason, the Hurricanes added only depth/checking line Marcus Kruger at the center position and instead spent the one big bullet salary-wise on veteran leader Justin Williams.
I entered training camp with mixed feelings about the offseason moves. With the step-wise improvement during the 2016-17 season and the young roster that still had room to grow potentially, there was potential upside from within the returning roster even before additions. Though there are no guarantees with any goalie, the addition of Scott Darling represented an aggressive move to address the team’s biggest need and add one of the top players available at the position based on any and all rankings. And Justin Williams represented a great locker room addition in the form of a player who could also still produce on the score sheet. But in not adding an offensive catalyst in the form of a playmaking center, the team failed to address what I considered to be the second glaring need entering the offseason.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that the price was incredibly high, arguably even too high, to add such a player. But situations like this are where general managers often either fail or succeed as measured by results in the next season.
In addition to addressing what I considered to the be top priority (a goalie), not addressing the second priority (a scoring catalyst at the center position) and possibly instead adding a legitimate top 6 forward with leadership abilities to boot, Francis also made a number of under the radar moves to solidify depth. He added Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger to build out a new fourth line and also added Trevor van Riemsdyk to solidify the third defense pairing.
When the offseason ended, Francis had made two top half of the roster acquisitions and also three depth acquisitions surpassing his work from the past summers.
Still a wide range of possible outcomes for the 2017-18 Hurricanes season
Important to note is that any evaluation of Francis’ work nearing the midway point of the season will be rendered irrelevant by a final assessment when the season ends.
The range of possibilities is incredibly wide right now. The season very much hangs in the balance between the team putting things together and pushing up into the playoffs which would be a huge success and instead missing again which just will not be good enough at this point. with a mid-season push and a playoff berth, Francis will look like a genius for his willingness and guts to bet on youth and also for many of the moves he did make. If the team stumbles and finds itself a seller at the trade deadline again, Francis will be criticized for not dipping into his growing pool of prospects and futures to do more to make the 2017-18 season a success.
Such is the life of an NHL general manager.
An early assessment of Ron Francis for the 2017-18 season
So while recognizing that a final verdict will be rendered by the NHL standings in about four months, for the sake of December Canes hockey conversation, here is my assessment of Francis’ work through 34 games.
Among the many areas where Francis has had success, the goalie position is far from being one of them. Before the 2015-165, he made the decision to part ways with Anton Khudobin and simultaneously add Eddie Lack. He then doubled down on his first decision by re-signing Lack to a two-year extension before Lack even arrived in Raleigh. Without diving back into the details, the move to add Lack failed, and in retrospect the move to extend him for two years without first seeing how he transitioned to the new team and role also proved to be a poor decision.
After a tough 2014-15 season in terms of netminding, Francis entered the offseason with Cam Ward coming off of his seven-year contract. With the opportunity to replace Ward, possibly replace goalie coach David Marcoux and/or try to make a deal to cut his losses with Lack, Francis inexplicably made the decision to take what did not work in 2015-16 and go right back to it in 2016-17. Not surprisingly, the results were similar. Though the path was different, the end result was that the Carolina Hurricanes goaltending was significantly below the league average based on just about any measurement of goalie play.
After two consecutive failed seasons of Ward/Lack/Marcoux, Francis moved aggressively to make changes this past offseason. He bid fairly aggressively to gain the negotiating rights for impending free agent Scott Darling from the Blackhawks and subsequently made a four-year commitment to a new starting goalie. Next Francis parted ways with goalie coach David Marcoux and replaced him with Mike Bales. One can always second guess individual moves, but at least Francis had avoided the previous summer’s error of just doing the same and hoping for better results. At the time of the deal, one of the things that jumped out about Darling was how similar he was to Lack in terms of past experience and roles. He was an older goalie who had success but had never really been a full-time #1 goalie and had logged only 75 games at the NHL compared to 82 for Lack.
Again, it is FAR too early to make any kind of permanent declaration on Scott Darling as a Hurricanes goalie, but it is fair to say that 34 games into his time with the team, he has not been a success.
Priority 2 – An offensive catalyst/Justin Williams
Be it because of onerous market prices for options or be it because of a change in priorities, Francis added winger Justin Williams and did not add a playmaking center. The two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive but the salary budget for each of the two is similar and maybe makes the combination of two moves worth considering together.
Through 34 games, I stand by my assertion that the Hurricanes would greatly benefit from adding a single offensive catalyst at the center position. Such at player could have a multiplier effect adding scoring himself and also boosting a couple line mates.
More tactically, one of the problems with the Hurricanes power play is that the lineup lacks a high-end puck distributor who can convert power play ice time into bunches of scoring chances for the other players on the ice with him. The current version of the power play features fairly static positioning and predictable puck movement that does not yield enough of the really good chances that often turn into goals. At even strength, the Hurricanes have a number of young wings with decent skill who could instantly see their goal scoring increase from playing with a puck distributor type center.
Finally, I would be remiss if I do not also comment on Justin Williams since I put him as somewhat of an either/or choice. Thus far, Williams has done everything one could ask from him. His current 57-point scoring is slightly better than expected. His solid two-way and puck possession play is underappreciated. And the leadership that he brings is also significant. So saying that the team could still benefit from a playmaking, scoring catalyst is not to say that Williams was not a good addition who has made the team better with the skill set that he brings.
Francis’ wheelhouse for trades during his three-year tenure as general manager has been getting really good value on middle of the roster/depth additions via trade and free agency. He added Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg for pretty much nothing, acquired Teuvo Teravainen for also taking on Bryan Bickell’s contract and he added Lee Stempniak via free agency for a price much lower than the big ticket forwards that summer.
Francis has been very good at adding players at a discount to market value and this summer was no exception. Francis gave up very little to get Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk to add to the collection of former Blackhawks on the roster, and Josh Jooris brought another proven depth forward for a modest cost.
All of these moves have worked out at least reasonably well thus far with van Riemsdyk being an underappreciated addition who has helped solidify a third defense pairing that struggled in 2016-17 and in the process provide a stable situation for Haydn Fleury initially and more recently Noah Hanifin.
The burning questions
Aside from the objective evaluation points that the end of season standings will provide, I do think there are some key questions that remain open with regard to Ron Francis’ abilities, tendencies and skill set.
In addition to value shopping especially with cap-constrained teams, can Francis pull off a bigger trade to add a top half of the roster player if he needs one to build a winner?
When Francis makes his next true player for player trade in the top half of the roster, it will be his first. Though the need was there and the options two, Francis has been unable to land a top 6 forward, ideally a center, via trade. It is one thing for a general manager to get a good price in deals, but it is a completely different thing to get what the team really needs.
In a similar vein, does Francis have enough wheeler/dealer in him to address weaknesses, fill holes and convert a good lineup with shortcomings into a winner.
As much as Francis’ long-term strategy is the right one, the prospect pool does not always generate what a team needs at the right time. There is a balance to patience and commitment to futures but also recognizing that if the team is close and the system does not fill a need, then making a deal trumps just waiting a couple more years for the prospect pool to help.
Can Francis, possibly with help from Head Coach Bill Peters and Goalie Coach Mike Bales figure out the goalie situation?
The position is incredibly important, and thus far under Francis’ tenure, the team has yet to figure it out.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How would you rate Ron Francis thus far?
2) How would you rate him thus far (and it is early) in terms of transitioning from being solely focused on the future to striking more of a balance between ‘win now’and ‘build for the future’?
3) If the Hurricanes stay in the playoff hunt leading up to the trade deadline, do you think Francis has one or two moves in him to put the team over the top? Based on what you have seen thus far, what type of player do you think would be targeted by such a move?