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Quick Whistles: Moving Forward

The Ron Francis era ends with drama, but the Canes have pieces that can give them sustainable success.

Jamie Kellner

Truth be told, it’s difficult to put coherent thoughts together right now when it comes to the Carolina Hurricanes.

By and large, the only thing that comes to my mind is confusion. I don’t know how Ron Francis, in year four of his five-year plan to turn a failing southern hockey market into a perennial winner, got unceremoniously booted out of his role as general manager.

Going all the way back to when he signed as a free agent and became the on-ice face of the franchise, Francis helped make this team sustainable - yes, the Hurricanes are sustainable. As a player, a coach, and an executive; his impact has been felt, is currently felt, and will always be felt - even if he just sits in his chair, twiddles his thumbs, and waits for his contract with the team to expire.

The news of Francis’ “promotion” to president of hockey operations was nothing short of stunning. While it was no secret that everyone’s job was on the line upon the team’s purchase by Tom Dundon, I don’t think anyone expected what happened to go the way it did.

For obvious reasons, some people are upset.

A Texas billionaire stepped in and, with zero experience in the realm of professional sports and little knowledge about the sport he invested a few-hundred million dollars in, made a change that puts the front office in limbo while the team on the ice wastes away yet another hugely disappointing season.

All the while, Canadian media personalities are coming to the plate to defend one of the best hockey players ever born in the great white north. How could this Texan who has never played the game of hockey just come in, waive his money around, buy a team, and dethrone a Hockey Hall of Famer?

Because he can.

While the manner in which Francis was removed from his position at the tail end of a season destined for failure might be puzzling, the reason why it happened was pretty clear.

Dundon is a successful businessman who has no ties with this team’s history. He doesn’t look at Francis and see a legendary hockey player or a corner stone of the organization for almost two decades. He sees a fourth-year general manager whose patient game plan has rendered no improvement at the NHL level.

For better or worse, Francis wasn’t given the opportunity to finish what he started. The new owner and the hockey lifer had different views on how things needed to be done and, in fairness, there was little to no reason for Dundon to give Francis the benefit of the doubt as he watched his huge investment slip down the standings and stumble at every opportunity to prove themselves as a worthy NHL playoff team.

Last summer, the front office made a lot of assumptions that supported their patient game plan. Instead of assuming that a hot month of March was a fluke, they assumed that it was a sign of long-term change. Instead of assuming that Victor Rask’s atrocious second-half was a real concern, they assumed he would flip a switch and suddenly stop being a huge liability. Instead of assuming that Skinner’s unsustainable stretch of 16 goals in 16 games to close out the season that shot his end-of-year totals through the stratosphere was just an isolated hot streak, they bet on him being a 35-goal scorer again. Bill Peters then drastically lessened the odds of that happening by lining him up with an under-sized 31-year-old center who had 73 games of NHL experience and produced points at a .42 per game rate up to that point and likely would have been closer to .25 had he been slotted in an appropriate bottom-six role instead of getting his numbers inflated by playing with a player who was, is, and always be exponentially better than him.

They took the easy way out in almost every area, and the one risk they did take - trading for and signing Scott Darling - has, to this point, been a catastrophic failure that has put them back in the exact same place they were in one year ago - with Cam Ward putting up below-league-average numbers and starting 75% of the time, only to be given the occasional day off wherein the team inevitably loses because either the front office kept making awful decisions with their goalie acquisitions or the players on the ice just cannot win with a goalie in net that isn’t wearing a mask that reads “Wardo” across the chin.

Well, it’s almost exactly like last year. They’re spending much more money on their bad goaltending this season.

I don’t know how much of this is Francis’ fault, but he was at the top of the food chain. He got credited with every good decision and blamed for every bad decision. Early on, the good decisions were far more common than the bad ones, but as time wore on that changed and this past offseason blew up in his face.

Those mistakes were only magnified when Francis seemingly refused to fix the problems he, in part, had created for himself. The team fell apart and no one did anything. No one did anything. They watched this thing crumble and it looked like they weren’t even trying to fix it.

There’s sticking to a five-year plan, and then there’s what Francis did. It wasn’t that he was just sticking to the plan, it was that he was so unwilling to do anything that could even possibly tinker with the plan he set. They didn’t adapt. Be it because of Francis’ plan or Peters’ preferences, they refused to even call a player up from Charlotte and instead let the likes of Victor Rask, Phil Di Giuseppe, Lee Stempniak, Derek Ryan, and Joakim Nordstrom play every single night.

They were okay with being mediocre. Shortly after 3:00 pm on trade deadline day, Francis told the media that the Canes were where they were predicted to be - on the bubble. The part he left out was that his team was plummeting downward. The only reasons they were technically a bubble team were that Columbus was also struggling, the New York teams were far worse than anyone expected, the Atlantic Division was awful, and Florida had games in hand. Just a week later, Columbus and Florida shot right past Carolina. Francis used a weak technicality as an excuse to not make a trade that actually made them better.

Francis’ patience resulted in a low return in the trade of Eric Staal, who is on pace to score 40 goals in Minnesota this season. He had to hit a home run with the Staal trade, and he bunted. Instead of selling high on Justin Faulk and/or Haydn Fleury, he waited. Now, both of them are at their lowest value. He never traded a defenseman for a forward. We waited two years for it to happen, but it never happened because of this patient rebuild that sold the fanbase on potential instead of real, tangible results.

All of this is coming from someone (me) who believed in Francis’ plan. He came in and had to build from the ground up. The first three years of his tenure were solid - outside of the miscue he and the coaching staff made with Eddie Lack and the aforementioned Staal trade. He wasn’t perfect, but he did more right than he did wrong. Two shining examples of that are Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, a pair of budding stars that he acquired for a fraction of their value by way of the draft and leveraging cap space into a home run trade.

This year was different because the team on the ice, the most talented group Francis had put together in four offseasons as GM, hasn’t looked interested in winning. Not for more than three or four games at a time, at least. Any and all momentum building games were followed up by clunkers that brought into question the “buy in” of the entire roster. This team fell apart multiple times between November and March, and those breakdowns will keep them out of a playoff spot. It takes one minor thing to not go their way, and they go into a shell for the rest of the night - just look at all the blowout losses they’ve suffered this season. They either show up or they don’t, and when they don’t, they REALLY don’t. And that sorry excuse for a goalie tandem isn’t good enough to bail them out when they need it.

While all this happened, there were crickets in the corner office at the PNC Arena. Outside of sending two fourth-liners to Charlotte, Francis - and Peters, for that matter - wasn’t doing anything to inspire some kind of change in this team. No call-ups. No trades. Nothing. That playoff door was wide open for two months and they constantly shot themselves in the foot. They refused to take the damn playoff spot. It was being handed to them. They just couldn’t grab it, and as they kept failing time, after time, after time; their most radical move was sending two fourth-liners to the AHL, where they probably should’ve been all along.

It’s indefensible.

Again, there is “sticking to the plan” and then there is being stubborn. I trust the process. I believe building slowly from the ground up is the correct way to build a winning hockey team. You need stability and you need to develop your own stars, not rely on free agents and trades. Look at history. It shows you in flashing neon lights two inches from your retinas “Don’t Be Stupid, Stupid”. Play the long game if you want to be consistently good - that’s what Jim Rutherford failed to do, and it was so refreshing to see Francis take this route.

With all of that said, I find it remarkably hard to believe that Francis would have had to sell off the entire farm system he built for three years to acquire one piece via trade to help this team this season. One forward to help offensively, one defenseman to help sure up the lackluster defensive efforts, or one goalie that could outperform two below-average net minders. Something. Anything. Literally anything at all. Nordstrom and Di Giuseppe have skated around and contributed next to nothing all season long. You can’t convince me that nothing at all could be done to make this team better. You don’t have to trade a 1st-round pick and seven prospects for someone to just play average hockey or even look like they’re giving a damn for 12:00 a night. I’m sure Charlotte has plenty of them, but I guess that is just an assumption because we never found out.

It’s something that I will never understand, and I’ve heard every argument. I don’t get how they just watched all of this happen and did absolutely nothing.

With all of that said, what’s in the past is in the past. Now, we are forced to shove this season to the bottom of the hamper and forget about it. This team has to move forward and they’ll have to do it with a new guy calling the shots.

Be it Nashville’s Paul Fenton, Tampa Bay’s Julien BriseBois, Buffalo’s Steve Greeley, Toronto’s Kyle Dubas, or someone we’ve never even heard of; the third GM of the Carolina Hurricanes will have a lot of great pieces to build around.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen have formed an exciting young Finnish duo that has made the 2017-18 season worth watching. They are the team’s top point producers, breaking out in a big way this season even as the team has fallen apart in epic fashion around them. Both of their contracts are set to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season, so handing out extensions to those players has to be among the top priorities for this organization.

The core of the blue line is still young and full of upside. Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are signed to team-friendly long-term deals that give the Hurricanes a solid foundation. From there, you have a 21-year-old All-Star defenseman who is less than three years removed from being a top-five draft pick in Noah Hanifin. Has he been perfect this season? No, but you have a lot of room to work with there and I think it would be very unwise to say he can’t still deliver on his potential. Give him time.

The farm system looks as good as it ever has. The Charlotte Checkers are one of the AHL’s highest-scoring teams and feature a laundry list of good NHL prospects in Aleksi Saarela, Lucas Wallmark, Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier, Janne Kuokkanen, Warren Foegele, Trevor Carrick, Roland McKeown, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Callum Booth. The junior leagues feature Stelio Mattheos, Jake Bean, and Jeremy Helvig, among others. Overseas, Martin Necas is putting together a big-time year and is widely considered to be a top-five prospect in all of hockey. Oh, Valentin Zykov also leads the AHL in goal scoring, and they’ll probably have another top-ten draft pick in June.

With those positives come a few negatives.

Scott Darling and Victor Rask are bringing in a combined $8.15 million annually on long-term deals, Bill Peters is performing some kind of circus act behind the bench every night, co-captain Justin Faulk has had an inexplicably egregious season, and this team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009. This team is still missing a first-line center, a starting goalie, depth scoring, and a good coaching staff, among other things.

It’s far from perfect, but there have been worse situations in recent memory that have been turned around in relatively short order. There’s something to work with now, and for that you can thank Ron Francis for his efforts.

That being said, the past year has been a train wreck for Ronnie Franchise. A new set of eyes is needed for this organization, one with no biases or previous relationships with this team. There need to be real steps forward that can actually be seen - not just promises that things are moving in the right direction.

Upstairs, behind the bench, and on the ice; the Hurricanes need to be reevaluated. Francis was the first domino to fall, and he likely won’t be the last. This team could - and should - look very different by the time October rolls around.