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Can Ron Francis Defy Pattern of Tunnel Vision Among NHL General Managers?

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As a general manager, it’s always good to have a plan for building a team, but what happens when you get too bogged down in that plan?

We know that Ron Francis has a strong team-building plan, but will he be willing to deviate from it should the circumstances surrounding his roster change?
Jamie Kellner

One thing that has become valued in the hockey world in recent years is a clear vision or plan from those in charge of assembling NHL rosters.

And while having a plan is a good thing (you certainly don’t want to be Jim Benning), I’m here today to argue that it’s possible to become too bogged down in a plan, or to have tunnel vision while attempting to build a team that fits a general manager’s preferred style.

The most prominent example of this that I can think of came following the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, when the Boston Bruins rode the stellar play of goaltender Tim Thomas to a championship.

Beyond Thomas, the main defining factor of that team was its identity as a big, physical force that punished its opposition through sheer strength.

In the following offseason, a lot of teams tried to build a roster that fit their idea of what made those Bruins successful.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who had literally won the Cup the year before, signed Jamal Mayers, Dan Carcillo, and Sean O’Donnell on July 1st that year. The following postseason, they fell to the Phoenix Coyotes in round one.

A couple off-seasons later, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs who tried to replicate the Bruins model, coming off of their game seven choke job at Boston’s hands in 2013.

That was the off-season in which they dealt for Dave Bolland and signed the now-infamous David Clarkson contract. Troy Bodie, Colton Orr, and Jay McClement also played significant roles for the 2013-2014 Leafs. They wound up going 6-14-1 to close out that season, crashing and burning out of a playoff spot in spectacular fashion.

These are just two examples of general managers getting tunnel vision and trying to build a certain type of good team rather than just the best team they could possibly build.

Too often, front offices and coaches get this idea in their head that their team has to play a certain way to be successful. As a result of this, they will begin to only pursue players who fit that style or system in trade negotiations, free agency, and even draft picks.

They will often stick with this vision to their own detriment even when development among their personnel strongly suggests that they would be better off going another direction.

One recent example of this is the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings have not won a playoff series since they rode strong defense and goaltending to their two Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, having even missed the playoffs in two of the past three years.

Former LA King Milan Lucic jostles with Carolina’s Justin Faulk in a 2015 meeting between the teams.
Jamie Kellner

The way the game is played rapidly changed around the Kings to a more skill-oriented brand of hockey, but now-departed general manager Dean Lombardi was steadfast in his idea of what winning Kings hockey looks like. He brought in Milan Lucic, who turned in an alright season before departing for nothing. Matt Greene and Robyn Regehr combined to miss only 15 games in 2014-2015.

This season, they brought in Jarome Iginla as a fix for their forward unit, the then-39-year-old quickly became the worst skater on the worst-skating forward group in the league.

As a result of his inability to adapt to his team’s personnel, Lombardi lost his job upon the conclusion of the regular season in April.

On the other side of the coin, there are some teams who are able to read the direction in which their team is going, and adjust their plans according to the dynamic strengths and weaknesses that they possess.

The team that best embodies this ability at present is without a doubt the Nashville Predators. For years with Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Kevin Klein, and others, the Predators represented the platonic ideal of a physical, shutdown defensive unit.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One
The emergence of Ryan Ellis and the acquisition of P.K. Subban have made a huge difference in how the Nashville Predators play defense
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Unlike Los Angeles, Nashville, led by general manager David Poile, saw the writing on the wall with the way the league was going and quickly and masterfully adjusted the make-up of his roster to one that can compete and win in the present-day NHL.

It started with the swap of Klein for Michael Del Zotto. While this particular move didn’t work out, it was an early indicator of the type of move that Poile knew he needed to make to give his team more puck-moving ability and offensive prowess it would need to be successful.

It continued with the move to hire Peter Laviolette as head coach. As Hurricanes fans know well, Laviolette lives and dies by his teams’ identities as quick-moving, fast-paced passing wizards.

One thing Laviolette did immediately upon taking the job entering the 2014-2015 season was to give defenseman Ryan Ellis a much more prominent role on the defensive unit. Ellis’s average time on ice per game in his first three years in the league was 14:50, 16:23, and 16:04 in succession.

The stagnation from year two to year three there suggests that maybe former head coach Barry Trotz had felt that Ellis was as useful as he was ever going to be. That’s pure speculation, but we know for certain that Laviolette didn’t feel that way. In the past three seasons, Ellis’s ice time has increased steadily from 18:59, to 20:54, to 23:57 this past season.

Ellis was perhaps the most under-appreciated member of the reigning Western conference champions while they were making their run, and his ascension from a number four or five defenseman under Trotz to a bonafide top pairing guy under Laviolette is no coincidence.

And finally, there’s the one obvious move that really changed the complexion of this Nashville team. The Shea Weber for P.K. Subban swap that sent shockwaves through the hockey world last June has a clear winner. Nobody would have blamed Poile too much had he held on to Shea Weber for too long. There was clearly a special bond between that franchise and that player.

But Poile made a fantastic hockey decision, and dealt his captain before his trade value regressed the way that his on-ice performance had in the recent past. Subban joined Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm to form an absolutely dominant top four that excelled in terms of mobility and puck movement. In hindsight, it should not have been a surprise at all that they took the West.

Noah Hanifin 09-21-15
What the Hurricanes do with defenseman Noah Hanifin will be very telling as to what Francis’s vision is for this team’s path to a championship.
Jamie Kellner

These examples, discussions, and ideas are important ones to be sorting through when it comes to the Hurricanes. As a team with a solid young nucleus in place that looks ready to take the next step, it’s important that the team’s front office will be able to adapt to the surprises that may be thrown their way.

As crazy as it sounds, we could be talking about the Hurricanes as an offensive powerhouse that needs help on defense in two years time. All it would take would be for some good fortune in the development of the young forwards (Gauthier, Roy, Kuokkanen, etc), a trade of either Justin Faulk or Noah Hanifin for forward help, and for the development of Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean to not go as planned.

When the Hurricanes picked Fleury, it was seen as a pick in which they took the best available player at the position they needed the most. Of course, the Hurricanes didn’t know at the time that Faulk’s offensive game was about to take off, or that they already had a top pairing in their system with Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.

These things can change so quickly, and while Fleury is certainly a nice prospect and attempts to label him as a bust are highly misguided, it’s hard to argue that the ‘Canes wouldn’t be a better team today had they taken William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers instead.

All this to say, I don’t blame Francis one bit for being unwilling to swap Hanifin for a guy like Matt Duchene. It’s highly unlikely that a team’s needs one off-season are going to be the same needs they have two off-seasons down the road.

Everything we’ve seen from Francis so far is encouraging when pondering whether or not he’ll be able to make these tough decisions in higher-pressure situations. He deviated from his usual free agency policy to solidify the forward group with Justin Williams. He was proactive in improving the team’s depth on the trade market with Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk.

But what about when the time comes, if the time comes, for this team to move a core piece for another core piece in an attempt to become a legitimate title contender. Because unless everyone currently in the pipeline and on the roster reaches their fullest potential, it appears as though that will be what has to happen.

Francis’s entire of body of work to this point gives fans reason to believe that he’ll do well with such a move. He’s stuck to his plan and built the groundwork of a great, young team. But his reputation as a GM for the rest of his managerial career could wind up hinging on one trade that his team may or may not need.

Will Francis’s big move ever happen? If it does, will it be one of the Primeau-for-Brind’Amour variety, or will it look more like trading Chris Pronger two years into his NHL career?

We’ll have to wait and see.