We are still fairly early into seeing and understanding Ron Francis as an NHL GM, but one has become incredibly clear already. He holds his cards incredibly close to his vest and telegraphs absolutely nothing. Sure he has to do interviews with the formal media, and he answers questions. But he speaks only in generalities. We get sound bites along the lines of
–We want to leave spots open for young players to win in camp.
–We want to grow from within.
But has been almost nothing in Ron Francis’ public comments that would have suggested a move he has made with maybe the one exception being the somewhat obvious moves of Andrej Sekera and Jiri Tlusty at the trade deadline.
What did Francis say that might have predicted the combination of shopping for a new backup/1B goalie (Eddie Lack) or that he might consider trading Anton Khudobin? I actually had James Wisniewski near the top of my list of possibly available defensemen adds before the draft weekend, but it was a lucky guess and nothing pieced together from reading Ron Francis’ tea leaves – because there really aren’t any. And while many people who cover the team suggested that the Canes should add another veteran forward, Francis’ quietness on this had most figuring it would be a late free agent signing if he did anything at all.
Shorter version: It is going to be a blast trying to play Ron Francis because it is not a reporting job. It is either mind-reading or trying to build logical conclusions based on how he thinks based on past moves and very little about what he is saying he is going to do.
So with that long introduction aside, let me take a shot at where I think Francis is right now with building the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes opening lineup.
Goalie: He should be set here. I wrote a post awhile back saying that it was pretty much impossible to re-sign Ward until at a minimum Francis sees some run time in 2015-16 to see who even emerges as the starter. Status quo there. He has his 2 guys barring injury and needs to see how they fit before doing anything with their contract situations. (Both are unrestricted free agents next summer.)
Defense: Earlier in the summer, I clamored for the Canes to add 1 more veteran defenseman, namely Christian Ehrhoff. At one point the Canes name did pop up in the rumor mill attached to Ehrhoff, so maybe Francis actually agreed (or maybe not). When he did not get Ehrhoff and did not have budget for a longer-term, more expensive deal for someone like Franson, I think his thought process went like this:
1) The options left are really 3rd pairing depth options.
2) He will not know for sure at least until he sees preseason games, but it is possible that 1-2 of the elite kids (Hanifin, Fleury) in the system could be better than this even with rookie mistakes in tow simply because of their skating abilty and upside.
3) So rather than adding depth that might not even be an upgrade, better to tread into camp as is and gather a read on the current options. If necessary, it would be fairly inexpensive to add a veteran depth defenseman later.
So I think Francis and his team have a fairly thorough list of blue line options (probably with Tim Gleason on it) in case none of the kids are ready, but he will either sit tight until he sees a couple preseason games or if he does add a veteran, it would have to be in a price range where he was okay eating the contract if the kids leapfrogged said veteran addition.
Forward: I think the Versteeg gives him enough to build some semblance of a top 9 and see how it starts. Coach Bill Peters has Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner and now Versteeg who will likely play in the top 6. If Peters goes with a Staal/Staal line again then Rask jumps into the top 6 to fill it out.
I think in terms of veteran forwards, Francis is finished for now until he sees how things look in training camp. There is some risk that the team’s lack of depth bites them if injuries hit, but he seems willing to take that risk to make sure he has motivation and chance to legitimately earn spots in training camp for the young players. On the one hand, it worked out well in terms of developing Rask, Lindholm and Terry. On the other hand, a couple more ready NHLers might have helped the Canes survive Jordan Staal’s injury last season.
But I think there is another angle on this. 3 points to start:
1) The Canes want to get bigger at forward. Francis has actually said a bit on that and also backed it up in the draft.
2) Versteeg is not the answer for that. That trade was an opportunistic chance to add a top 6-capable forward without actually paying anything in trade assets anyway.
3) The Canes prospect pool at forward is light right now and most of the players are a few years out. Whereas Francis seems to have the pipeline built on defense, the restock for the forward position is mostly still scheduled for the 2016 and 2017 drafts.
So while I do not think Francis will shop to add stopgap veteran help at forward, I think he will opportunistically look for options to add longer-term forwards who are NHL ready or close and bring size with enough skating and skill to the lineup. The name that jumps out right now is Brock Nelson with the Islanders who is a restricted free agent who is still not signed. Best guess is that he gets things worked out with the Islanders this week, but when a player is not signed by September 13, there is at least a chance that he gets moved. Nelson is a 2010 draftee like Jeff Skinner who was taken in the 1st round at #30 overall. He had a solid 2014-15 NHL campaign with 20 goals and 22 assists which is what has him looking for a raise and not happy with what the Islanders have offered thus far. A wild guess says he wants something in the neighborhood of Lindholm’s $2.7M/year for 2-3 years – basically a bridge to more negotiation power and arbitration rights.
So shorter version: I do not see Ron Francis trading significant futures to add short-term veteran help at forward, at least until he and Bill Peters can assess what they have. But I do think he could be poking around from now until the draft weekend next summer trying to see if he can add a young NHL-ready forward or 2, and he might be willing to package up a defense prospect or 2 to do it.
Training camp week is here! FINALLY!