Hurricanes general manager has stated a preference to build his team from within and to have roster spots to be won in training camp. He and Bill Peters have also been strong worded (biggest example being Alexander Semin situation) about rewarding performance. In the first 2 summers since taking over the GM role, Francis has been true to his word.
During the summer of 2014, the Hurricanes added only fourth-liner Jay McClement to a team that finished 24th in the NHL in the previous season. In training camp, positions were won by Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy (who started in the NHL but also spent time in the AHL). The opportunity proved most beneficial for Victor Rask who quickly developed into a decent third-line center with upside. Riley Nash played well early before trailing off, and Chris Terry stuck at the NHL level for the first time after multiple tries. I think it is fair to say that gains were made in terms of player development. But in terms of competitiveness, I think it is fair to say that the strategy was a miss. When Jordan Staal was felled by injury in preseason, it became sink or swim for young players and the Canes as a team sunk. By the time Jordan Staal returned in December, all playoff hopes were already lost. Players like Chris Terry and Riley Nash did grow, but they also just did not stack up against playoff teams’ top 9 forwards.
After a 26th place finish in the 2014-15 season, Francis was a little bit more aggressive but still very much worked from a grow from within preference. Francis also rewarded the best of the group, Chris Terry, Riley Nash and Michal Jordan, with 1-way contracts. Between the trade deadline and summer, the team jettisoned veterans Jiri Tlusty, Andrej Sekera and Alexander Semin via buyout. Added were Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom and James Wisniewski via trade. In 2 moves, Francis also swapped in Eddie Lack and swapped out Anton Khudobin. Noah Hanifin also joined via the draft obviously. When the dust settled on the summer of 2015, the Canes had only 4 experienced NHL defensemen and 8 experienced forwards. Ultimately, the Canes roster included 3 inexperienced defensemen in Ryan Murphy, Noah Hanifin and Michal Jordan. It also included Joakim Nordstrom. I think the fact that Nordstrom could parachute right into a Hurricanes lineup and with the latest Bill Peters’ line combination mashup actually finds himself on a second line next to Jordan Staal is telling. He was expendable for the Blackhawks because he was unlikely to make the opening day roster there.
At a conceptual level, building the team from within and rewarding players for performance are motherhood and apple pie. Who can argue with either of those?
But when I look at the standings results and the specific moves, I think that Ron Francis’ approach to roster-building is 2-3 years ahead of what is feasible given the assets he has. I also question whether, especially this season, he could have done just as well for player development but at the same time given his team a much better chance for the current season by signing a few more veterans on the cheap.
Put more bluntly, I just do not think that the Hurricanes have enough NHL-ready depth right now. In my post entitled “Harsh commentary on Hurricanes depth from the waiver wire” which you can find HERE, I explored this in more detail. I question whether Chris Terry or Michal Jordan would have garnered a 1-way contract with many other teams. Both had decent, not great, 2014-15 campaigns, but I would not say that either was a sure thing/indispensable part of the lineup for 2015-16. And at 25 (Jordan) and 26 years old (Terry), I do not think either would qualify as young prospects that must get ice time to further develop.
In the long run and with a deep pool of talent in the system, I love the idea of building from within. But I think Francis is too early/too aggressive with putting this into action. He just has not built up enough quality depth yet especially at forward. After 3 scoreless games with little impact, how many good teams would still have Chris Terry in the mix for top 9 minutes in the next game. I count 4 players (Nordstrom, Nash, Terry, Nestrasil) who could play in the Canes top 9 who might be fourth line at best on good teams. With an offense starving for scoring and playmaking, if Terry was on a 2-way deal might it have cleared the way for the Canes to chase Brad Boyes or similar at a low cost and without blocking any young players? On defense, might it have been possible to have 1 more proven veteran around to help ease the way for Hanifin rather than a 25-year old rookie in Jordan who really is not that much more experienced NHL-wise than Hanifin himself. One could argue that the lack of additions is budget driven, but with the volume of decent NHL players who signed for $1 million or less this summer, that is not really the case. I think it is more that Francis committed too much to how he eventually wants to build the roster before the system and players were in place to make it possible.