Over the next few days, I hope to offer mid-term evaluations based on results through just past 1/4 of the Hurricanes 2015-16 season. Part 1 of this series focuses on GM Ron Francis and his work this past summer.
It is far too early to make a final call on how Ron Francis did last summer. A key starting point is the understanding that his primary goal is clearly to build for the future, not the here and now. So in that regard, we are a long way from being able to make an assessment.
But now with 2 full summers of Ron Francis as GM behind us, I think it is fair to discuss successes, shortcomings and trends.
On sort of a move-by-move basis, here is an assessment of Ron Francis’ summer of 2015:
1) Avoiding temptation to spend future gold to buy current band aids
I think it is incredibly important to start here. I will say with 100% certainty that Ron Francis could have built a somewhat better team for 2015-16 if he was willing to spend more futures to do so. Just like in the previous summer, Francis avoided the temptation to try to duct tape his way to a better team today at the expense of the future. In adding James Wisniewski and Eddie Lack (to replace Anton Khudobin who was part of the Wisniewski trade), Francis gave up only a third round pick. He also avoided whatever other number of countless things might have been dangled in front of him to improve his team. With the Blackhawks up against the wall needing to clear cap space to make their roster work, Ron Francis added Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom in a masterful trade that saw him come out ahead in terms of futures included in that deal when he gave up a sixth round pick (Jake Massie 2015) and a fifth round pick and get a third round pick in return.
When the dust settled on the summer, Francis had added James Wisniewski, Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom via trade (and also swapped backup goalies: Lack for Khudobin) and in the process given up only fifth, sixth and seventh round draft picks (third-rounder given up in Lack deal offsets with third-rounder gained in Blackhawks deal).
The net was at least a modest attempt to improve the 2015-16 roster importantly while spending very little in terms of futures to do so.
He also left room in the lineup for prospects to win spots and develop with NHL ice time. I think he actually missed a bit on this one (see #2).
I give Ron Francis an A for not spending the future to improve today and a B+ for his trades. Surely, he could have tried to do more but it would have cost more. His trades were good value for what he spent and also considering salary budget.
2) Internal re-signing decisions
I think Francis largely missed in this regard. Early in the summer, he picked the 2 prospects who seemed to rise to the top last season in Chris Terry and Michal Jordan and rewarded each with a 1-way contract. By signing 1-way deals, Francis basically slotted Terry somewhere in the top 12 NHL forwards and Jordan somewhere in the top 7 defensemen. Especially looking back now, I think he missed on both of these. Jordan struggle trying to do what you would hope from an older depth defenseman which is filling in adequately if/when a Hurricanes defenseman was injured. He struggled next to Liles in the top 4 and really has not looked great otherwise when he has been inserted into the lineup since then. Terry has similarly struggled to be a difference-maker worthy of a dedicated roster spot. His all-around game has improved, but he is still below average in terms of speed and quickness which limits him defensively and his 3 goals and 0 assists in 23 games played are obviously not providing the depth scoring that the Canes could really use from a skilled depth player like him. One might consider this an investment in the future if Terry and Jordan were younger but Jordan is 25 years old, and Terry is 26 years old. They are really only prospects/youth in terms of experience level, not so much in terms of actual age. Francis also re-signed Riley Nash to a 1-way deal for 1 year at $1.1 million and Andrej Nestrasil to a 2-year deal at for $900,000 per year. With more NHL experience, I am not sure Francis could have signed Nash or Nestrasil to 2-way deals, so I consider both of those okay signings.
When you net it out, the error/cost is small, but I think Ron Francis missed when he signed contracts for what he hoped would happen (would be valuable role players and be worth 1-way deals) instead of leaving options open (signing them to 2-way deals such that they could be sent to Charlotte if it was not working). He also tied up roster spots with ‘veteran rookies’ that maybe could have been spent better on cheap free agent signings at the end of summer. Again, it is not like he is using these slots to develop truly young players. I am torn on the Nash deal. With more NHL experience, I think it would have been harder to get a 2-way deal.
The bigger thing is to watch to see if Ron Francis has a bias for optimism at the risk of getting a bit ahead of himself in terms of handing out 1-way deals hoping a player will earn it.
When you consider the fact that Terry, Jordan and to some degree Nash are cemented into the roster when maybe they did not need to be and look what they are producing, I have to give Francis a C for results.
3) The extension decisions
The 2 biggest questions from this summer in Cam Ward and Eric Staal are still unresolved. Because of the size of his contract and also the hesitancy to commit to anything past this season before this season played out, I doubt there was any other path for Cam Ward. The Eric Staal situation is challenging as well. If Francis wants to trade him, his big salary cap hit makes that challenging, and a re-signing is also tricky. So I do not think you can really fault Francis with the fact that both Cam Ward and Eric Staal are still in long-term limbo. But the risk, especially with Eric Staal, is that he has had that 1 catastrophic shift in which he gets injured and becomes a very expensive non-player for the remainder of this season and loses all trade value in the process.
Along the way, Ron Francis did make 2 other somewhat longer-term commitments when he extended both Eddie Lack and Elias Lindholm for 2 years past their contracts that end after this season. You can see the thought process of getting some cost certainty for the roster going forward and also locking up players before the risk that a huge season makes them more expensive. And in the case of Lack, he could have ridden a good season to a bidding war as a free agent next summer. So Francis signed both players to an additional 2 years at a middle ground type of price. He also re-upped with Andrej Nestrasil for 2 years when he could have probably instead inked him for just 1 year.
It is too early to make a final judgement on this, but I think it is fair to say that both players value and expectations are less now than when they signed the extensions. Lindholm has warmed up recently, but even riding a hot streak, his current pace is for 23 points over an 82-game season which is obviously underwhelming. Had Francis not already re-signed him, he is currently on target to net a 1-year ‘show me’ contract next summer in the range of $1.2-$1.8M versus the $2.75 million that Francis signed for the next 2 years. Eddie Lack is still a backup and not playing well so far this season. With Ward struggling of late, the door is wide open for him to take the reins. If he does that and plays well, things change significantly in a hurry, but right now his value next summer would be more in the backup price range from a team willing to take a flyer on his 2014-15 success at something less than the 1A/1B price of $2.75 million for which he signed.
This ‘summer work’ by Francis is probably the situation with the greatest potential to look wildly different by the end of the season or even sooner. The ultimate resolution of the Cam Ward and Eric Staal situations are still pending, and there is plenty of time for Lack and Lindholm to turn around their seasons. This said, as of right now I think you have to give Francis a C on this 1 so far.
Similar to my comments on the Terry and Jordan signings, I think the more interesting thing will be to watch to see if we are seeing a trend and possibly a flaw in Francis’ approach here. He made an assessment on Terry and Jordan and then made a commitment based on it. He did the same longer-term with Lack and Lindholm. While it is good for a GM to project how he thinks/hopes things will turn out, there is a balance to be had with not overcommitting. That is how you end up with bad contracts.
3) Free agent signings
This is an interesting category. The only free agents that Ron Francis signed this summer were his own. As already mentioned, he signed Nestrasil, Nash, Terry and Jordan for the NHL roster and a couple other AHL players, and he added players via trade, but he did not make a single free agent. I like the general thought process of using the last couple roster spots to insert and develop young prospects with the hope that they start as depth players winning last spots and grow to be difference-makers from there. So long-term, I am on board with this preference/approach. But I think how Francis wants to do things might be a couple years ahead of the reality of the personnel that he has. I wrote about this HERE on October 15 a little before some additional evidence piled up.
In addition to just not being a very good hockey team when young depth is not quite ready, there can be other side effects to this situation.
First, if the team is not scoring in general and players are overslotted a bit, the pressure increases across the board. I think we are seeing a bit of that with Lindholm. On a deeper team (think Kerby Rychel in Columbus), Lindholm might be pushed down to the AHL. If he did make the NHL, it might be in a fourth line role in which scoring was a bonus not a requirement. And if he played well/produced, he would move up naturally BECAUSE of his production, not HOPING FOR production.
The other side effect is that if you have too many players who are not truly NHL caliber, you run the risk of putting players with line mates that inhibit their ability to be successful. I think the player who has taken the brunt of this has been Jordan Staal who is theoretically a second line center but has been largely playing with a combination of third/fourth line type players or even fringe AHL/NHLers. He is a veteran who can hopefully keep plugging along, but I think the potential damage is greater if you put a developing young player in a situation without enough help, have him flounder and then need to try to rebuild his confidence and game.
This 1 ties into #2, but I think the Canes could have benefited from signing another veteran forward or possibly even 2 to slot things better. At least through 24 games, Francis’ decision to spend the last few roster spots on players like Terry and Jordan instead of cherry-picking the leftover free agents in August/early September (importantly for prices about the same as Terry and Jordan’s deals) has been a negative so far for the 2015-16 season, and you could argue that it has indirectly contributed to some of the pressures and challenges of young players developing. For that I give Francis the same C in this regard through 24 games.
When I net it out, I give Ron Francis credit so far for sticking to his guns about building a strong system that can consistently generate good players and therefore make the next time the Canes win the beginning of something sustainable not band aids and magic in a bottle. So he scores well for general approach/ability not to be tempted away from it by potential quick fixes. But I also think his hope got a bit ahead of the reality of the Canes system this summer and led to some misses in terms of building a team for 2015-16 and even the future.