In a terse press release on Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes announced that Ron Francis’s contract had been terminated by the team.
That end point was all but inevitable given the chain of events since his removal from the general manager post.
The path to get here
Since that demotion, Francis had all but disappeared (literally in a couple cases). He was oddly absent from the team’s photo. Don Waddell had become the public face everything GM-ish including the general managers’ meetings and more recently the draft lottery. And the team had added a vice president responsible for player contracts.
When the Canadian media reported that Ron Francis was working from home, some in the Canes Twitterverse tried to say it was the Canadian media making something out of nothing. When someone who was recently demoted and did not previously work from home suddenly starts doing so, it is something though. And in this case it was a very unmistakable sign for how things would end and also a pretty clear indication that the ending would be sooner than later. Sure enough, a few days later, here we are.
We might never know exactly what happened inside of 1400 Edwards Mill Road, but the basics are that Ron Francis and new owner Tom Dundon did not see eye to eye on some issues of importance. At that point, the only resolution is for Ron Francis to fall in line deferring to the new owner’s way of business or for Tom Dundon to stand down and let Francis run the hockey side of the business the way he wanted to without much interference. Neither of those happened apparently, so here we are.
Ron Francis’ history as a Hurricanes’ executive
Francis’ place in Hurricanes’ history is already cemented into the foundation of the team and commemorated with his jersey that hangs in the rafters. Despite the fact that he is parting ways, nothing changes in the slightest with that.
Francis’ time with the team started after a brief break following his retirement as a player. With modesty and respect for the fact that his career post player was something new, Francis started at the bottom, filled in where needed and worked his way up. He started as Vice President of Player Development and then spent time on the bench with Paul Maurice before moving back upstairs as an assistant general manager and ultimately the general manager starting in April of 2014. He was nearing the end of his fourth year as general manager when he was moved out of that role.
Ron Francis’ shortcomings over a short period of time ‘on the clock’
Interestingly, I really think you can hang only a single season on Ron Francis.
The team he took over before the 2014-15 season was largely in shambles, and the 2015-16 season was very much still focused on rebuilding. When multiple young players emerged ahead of schedule, the team showed some improvement in 2016-17 and seemed to be within grabbing distance of the playoffs at least a year ahead of schedule. But in my opinion, I would still put the 2016-17 season firmly in the category of rebuilding.
As such, I think the 2017-18 season is really the only season during which one can fairly grade Francis’ for his ability to build a winner. I do think the playoffs were a possibility and should have been the goal for the 2017-18 season. And I do think Francis missed in that regard. He moved aggressively and did not spare expense in adding Scott Darling, but the move was a miss by a huge margin especially as compared to a number of other teams that added starting goalies last summer. And though by refusing to overpay for scoring help, he played a significant role in the repeat of scoring trouble that also played a role in the 2017-18 failure. Finally, the approach to stock the bottom of the lineup with veteran checking line forwards made nearly certain that if plan A for more scoring (seemingly steps up by young players) did not materialize, there really was not much else for a plan B or help.
Some will talk about Francis’ four years with no playoffs and even longer run as an executive for the losing team. But if one wants to grade Francis on winning and losing, I really think it is only fair to hold him accountable for the 2017-18 season. And though there are many factors in the course of a long NHL season, I do think it is fair to say that Francis failed for the 2017-18 season that was a significant disappointment. And with a new owner and significant change needed in some variety, that in itself could have been enough to cost Francis his job, but at the end of the day, it likely was more about working relationship than track record/results.
Ron Francis’ positive legacy
But per my Twitter post this afternoon, Ron Francis will leave behind a legacy that will benefit the team and its fan base for years to come.
3/3 Ron Francis deserves a huge amount of credit for helping rebuild from almost nothing. @NHLCanes and team's fans will benefit in the long run from what he did over the past 4 years.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) April 30, 2018
The team that Ron Francis’ inherited was short of NHL talent by a wide margin and not particularly young to boot. Further, the team’s prospect pool was ranked in the bottom five in the league by anyone who did those rankings. And the team was coming off another poor season.
In short, the team that Ron Francis inherited was not good in the present and did not project to be good in the future either.
Ron Francis’ mantra from the beginning was youth focused. Whenever he spoke, he spoke building from within, improving the prospect pool, building a deeper team through the draft and other topics all centered around a youth movement. To Francis’ credit he backed up his words with actions and impeccable consistency. When given the chance to build the prospect pool with young players and draft picks at the trade deadline, he did so. When faced with the temptation of going for quick fixes in the offseason by sacrificing youth for veterans, he was unwavering in his commitment to rebuilding through youth.
A legitimate argument can be made that Francis was too conservative specifically for building the 2017-18 season, but his errors, if you want to call them that, do have a positive flip side. The bottom-dwelling prospect pool that he inherited now ranks at least in the top third of the league which is even more impressive when one considers that multiple players fast-tracked to the NHL level and left gaps below. And though there is still work to be done, the current NHL lineup is both younger and better and therefore a better foundation to build from.
In short, despite not building a playoff team for the 2017-18 season, Ron Francis very clearly left the organization in a better place than he received it. As such, the new general manager will be in a good position to use the emerging prospect pool for some combination of depth and trade chips if necessary to build a winner. And though Ron Francis will not be the general manager when the team returns to the playoffs, he will still have had a major role in the rebuilding process that set the stage for it.
For that and for the class with which Ron Francis represented our team and our hockey community, I am incredibly thankful.
But it is time to move forward
I am on record as wishing there was a way to keep Francis in the mix because I think the organization is better with him than without him. That said, change of the meaningful variety. Comfortable change, where we make Peters a scapegoat, maybe pick one core player and then offload a few depth players really is not change. It is more of a reshuffling of mostly the same deck.
So as I said on Twitter on Monday after the announcement
4/3 And personally it saddens me to see him no longer part of the organization, but at the same time, I do not think it is fair to ask for (necessary) change and the put a huge number of limits on what cannot be changed. #Canes
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) April 30, 2018
By no means am I happy about Monday’s events, but at the same time I recognize that truly changing the organization, its culture and most importantly its success requires meaningful change in the ranks. As painful as it is and though my preference was to keep Francis, this fits under the plan of truly making changes.
What say you Caniacs?
1) As much as Francis is perfect example in class, do you think this was a necessary move?
2) Do you agree with my assessment that Francis did miss in 2017-18 but also that the just-completed season is really the only one on which he can be fairly graded?
3) If you had to describe Francis’ legacy as an executive, how would you do so?