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Grading Ron Francis’ Moves as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes

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Francis’ tenure should be remembered as nothing more than “average”.

Jamie Kellner

It’s been exactly two weeks since Ron Francis’ unceremonious removal from his role as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.

But before we look forward to who his successor will be, let’s take a look back at Francis’ body of work.

Through drafting, trading, free agent signings, in-house moves, and coaching decisions, Francis made a lot of good decisions that set up his team for long-term success. He also made a number of puzzling decisions that will act as anchors for the Hurricanes well into the future.

I have discussed and graded each of those areas as it pertains to Francis’ tenure as GM in Raleigh.


Jamie Kellner

Drafting

Highlight: Sebastian Aho (35th-overall, 2015)
Lowlight: Haydn Fleury (7th-overall, 2014), 2014 Draft

Francis committed to building the organization through the draft, so it was instrumental that he hit a couple of home runs in this area. While this is a very important category, it’s also the toughest one to judge given the nature of prospects and the variables that go into the speed and quality of their development.

The biggest highlight is obvious. Sebastian Aho was an absolute steal in the second round of the 2015 draft. Noah Hanifin got all the attention from that draft, and he earned it as he was a consensus top-five pick and considered by most to be the best defenseman in the draft, but Aho could easily end up being the better of the two players.

Now 20-year-old, the Finnish forward is already rising into elite status in the NHL and has a long career ahead of him, one which the Hurricanes will benefit from in a huge way.

Hanifin has more development time ahead of him, but Zach Werenski (seventh-overall to Columbus) and Ivan Provorov (eighth-overall to Philadelphia) have blown past him in their development.

Martin Necas was drafted with the 12th-overall pick last June, but his big season in the Czech league and a remarkable showing in the World Junior Championships have shot him up the prospect rankings, where he is now a near-consensus top-five prospect across all of hockey. He could still falter but, right now, he looks like a win for Francis. If he pans out as a top-six center and lives up to his Claude Giroux comparisons, it’ll be a home run.

Other potential highlights include Stelio Mattheos, one of this year’s breakout players in the WHL. Mattheos has shown his offensive upside and could become a well-rounded top-nine forward for Carolina within the next several years. Forwards Nicolas Roy, Janne Kuokkanen, and Warren Foegele are all in the middle of their rookie seasons as AHLers and have impressed to varying degrees. They all have top-nine or fringe-top-six upside and seem to be relatively safe bets as future NHLers. Lucas Wallmark will be a solid value pick as well if he can become an NHL regular.

David Cotton is a wild-card. The big center-man is second in points for Boston College and has outplayed his sixth-round pick status. If he can become an NHL regular at any point, he should be considered a high-value draft pick, but if he doesn’t, no harm no foul.

On the other end of the spectrum, Haydn Fleury will end up being the most painful mis-hit for Francis. The first pick of the Francis Era, Fleury has had a tough time even beating out Klas Dahlbeck for a spot on Carolina’s blue line as a second-year pro.

While Fleury has struggled as a rookie, he is still a ways away from the end of his development and should continue to improve over the next three seasons. That said, this is still a lowlight because of who was still on the board when the Canes went on the clock in 2014.

Francis ultimately passed up on William Nylander (eighth-overall to Toronto), Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth-overall to Winnipeg), Kevin Fiala (11th-overall to Nashville), Dylan Larkin (15th-overall to Detroit), and David Pastrnak (25th-overall to Boston).

Of course, Nylander and Ehlers coming off the board with the two picks immediately following Carolina really hurts. The two European forwards have combined for 41 goals and 105 points this season, alone. Fleury’s zero goals and six total points pale in comparison, even if he is a defenseman.

Remember, kids; don’t draft for need. Draft the best player available. The Canes reached for Fleury because their farm system had no defensive help on the way. Little did they know, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were on their way to being top-four NHL defensemen within the next two years and Noah Hanifin would fall in their lap in 2015. The 2014 draft can only be saved by a sudden jump from Fleury or legitimate NHL impacts from all of Alex Nedeljkovic, Foegele, and Wallmark.

2016 could end up being a huge whiff for Carolina. Jake Bean was a shocking selection at 13, as the club made him their third-consecutive left-handed defenseman taken in the first round. Bean has had a good year in the WHL, but he hasn’t taken a dramatic step forward like many had hoped. He will turn pro next season.

Again, this pick hurts because of who was still on the board. Right-handed defenseman Charlie McAvoy was taken with the next pick by Boston and is the best rookie defenseman in the NHL this season. Kieffer Bellows, taken by the Islanders at 19, is a goal-scoring machine and had a huge World Junior performance for the USA.

Two picks after Bellows went, the Hurricanes took goal-hungry power forward Julien Gauthier. Again, it’s too early to tell with the 2016 draft, but he has had a rough go in the AHL this season. In 53 games, he has 12 goals and just 16 points for a dominant offensive team in the Charlotte Checkers. He has also shown frustration with his usage from head coach Mike Vellucci.

Sam Steel, Henrik Borgstrom, Brett Howden, Jordan Kyrou, and Alex DeBrincat were all still on the board and project better to the NHL than Gauthier. There is still plenty of time, though.

In summary, the 2014 draft looks like a loss, the 2015 draft is a win, the 2016 draft looks fine, and the 2017 draft could go either way. Francis’ strength was maximizing the value of his later picks, but he wasn’t anything better than “okay” when he had the opportunity to draft high-upside guys in the first round.

Grade: C+


Jamie Kellner

Trading

Highlight: Traded 2016 2nd and 2017 3rd to CHI for Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen
Lowlight: The trades he didn’t make.

Leveraging cap space into a heist of the Chicago Blackhawks may go down as Francis’ best move as general manager of the Hurricanes. For taking on one year of Bickell’s high cap hit, the Canes got a former first-round pick who has, in the two years since, flourished in a bigger role and delivered on the promise he had as a prospect with many years ahead to improve.

All things considered, Francis did well when it came to maximizing the value he got for his spare parts. Trading two months of Andrej Sekera to Los Angeles for a first-round pick and Roland McKeown back in 2015 also ranks high on his list of smart moves. He also managed to get value out of Jiri Tlusty, Jay Harrison, and Tim Gleason, all of whom are no longer in the NHL.

Trading a second-round pick for Trevor van Riemsdyk was an “okay” move, I guess. While van Riemsdyk has been a very steady presence in a sheltered role this season, I’m not sure if he is worth a second-round draft pick. If he signs an extension at the right dollar amount, that trade won’t look too bad, but if he walks as a UFA this summer, I think the Canes would have gotten the worse end of that deal by a slight amount.

With the good came some bad, however. Upon the acquisition of Eddie Lack for two draft picks, an experiment that ended up failing spectacularly, Francis dealt Anton Khudobin to the Anaheim Ducks for James Wisniewski. Wisniewski suffered a season-ending knee injury less than a minute into his Hurricanes career, and while Khudobin wasn’t much of a contributor for the Ducks, he has been solid in a back-up role in Boston.

More recently, he practically gave away a third-round and fifth-round pick for the services of Scott Darling and Marcus Kruger, a pair of players who have not lived up to their expectations in the slightest. While Darling could, in theory, turn it around in year two, Kruger likely doesn’t have a future at the NHL level for the Hurricanes.

Signing Darling to a four-year deal worth more than $4 million annual only makes that one harder to swallow. The next GM will have to make the decision as to whether a buyout is in order or the team lets him give it another shot.

You could also make a very convincing argument that he didn’t get nearly enough value in return for Eric Staal. The two second-round picks and Aleksi Saarela are fine, but it becomes harder to justify in hindsight in light of Staal’s Hart Trophy-level performance with the Wild this season.

Above all else, the biggest downfall of Ron Francis’ trade history is the move he didn’t make. He never made the highly-anticipated defenseman-for-forward trade that could have put his team over the hump. New Jersey turned Adam Larsson into Taylor Hall, a Hart Trophy candidate. Meanwhile, Francis held onto the likes of Justin Faulk, who had three consecutive seasons with 15+ goals, and Haydn Fleury, who had a great rookie campaign in the AHL a season ago, when their values were at their highest.

Now, you might have a tough time getting a third-liner out of either of those players in a one-for-one trade.

Francis was excellent at turning his trash into treasure during the early days of his rebuild, but when it came time to make his team a real playoff threat, he failed to even pull off a notable player-for-player trade. His final trade was a Josh Jooris-for-Greg McKegg deal that, for most of the fanbase, put the final nail in his coffin.

Grade: C


Jamie Kellner

Free Agency

Highlight: Justin Williams (Signed two-year, $9 million contract on July 1, 2017)
Lowlight: N/A

Every year, like clockwork, Ron Francis said that there are two days that scare him the most - trade deadline day and July 1.

Those are the two days every year that are responsible for the most GM firings but, for Francis, July 1 stayed quiet. Ultimately, his best free agent move was the signing of Justin Williams, a fan-favorite and ultra-reliable veteran top-nine forward, to a two-year contract prior to the 2017-18 season.

This contract isn’t a highlight because it was a massive difference-maker or a monetary steal, it’s the highlight because it was really the only impactful free agent signing Francis ever made.

Jay McClement, Lee Stempniak, Viktor Stalberg, Derek Ryan, and Josh Jooris all provided some level of contribution to the team, but it’s tough to say any of those players were big time wins or losses.

McClement turned a one-year audition into a two-year extension, whereupon he quickly turned into one of the worst forwards in the NHL; Stempniak had a solid first year with the team prior to his second year being torn apart by injuries; Stalberg was a good fourth-line contributor before getting dealt as a deadline rental; Ryan was a sneaky good signing out of the SHL, but he, too, has quickly fallen out of favor in Raleigh; and Jooris was nothing more than a depth forward.

Outside of those signing, Francis never brought in any free agents who went on to play big roles in the organization. For obvious reasons, you can view that as a negative, but you can also view it as a positive as he never blew money on players who didn’t deserve it.

With all that said, quiet free agent periods only add to Francis’ overarching flaw of not taking any risks and instead playing the long game. Did he do anything that made a big difference? Not really. Did he do anything that made him look foolish? Not really. He was average here.

Grade: C


Jamie Kellner

In-house Moves

Highlight: Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce (Signed six and seven-year extensions for combined $9.325 million AAV)
Lowlight: Victor Rask (Signed six-year, $24 million contract on July 12, 2016)

With a young team like the Hurricanes comes a lot of big decisions that need to be made with contract extensions.

In some instances, Francis was conservative with his RFAs. He handed out bridge deals to Teuvo Teravainen (two years, $2.87 million AAV) and Elias Lindholm (two years, $2.7 million AAV) that have proved to be solid value that allowed the team and the player to gauge where things were going. If Teravainen has another good year in 2018-19, he will be in line for a hefty extension, and the next GM will have to determine what is appropriate for Lindholm this summer.

In other instances, Francis was aggressive. In fact, this was the area where he took the most risks. Some of those risks were good, but others look pretty bad.

Starting with the good, Slavin and Pesce were signed to long-term deals that bought up multiple UFA years and will lock them up into their late-20’s. Slavin’s seven-year, $5.3 million AAV contract was the biggest that Francis handed out. Pesce’s six-year, $4.025 AAV deal wasn’t too far behind.

While Slavin and Pesce haven’t taken the big steps forward this season that many would have hoped, they are both just 23 and are entering the prime of their careers. They are bonafide top-four defensemen with top-pairing upside who can shut down the opposition’s best players. I’m more than happy with them being a pair of players that this team builds around for the long term, if that ends up being the case.

Then, there’s the Victor Rask deal.

After two full NHL seasons, Rask had developed into a reliable second-line center, a role that the team hoped he would fit into for the next six years.

Upon the expiration of his ELC, Rask inked a six-year deal worth $4 million per season. It was a deal that was met with praise, but when Rask’s play dipped severely in the second half of the 2016-17 season, there were some warning signs. His 2017-18 campaign has been a train wreck as his production and effort level have regressed dramatically.

This is an example of Francis taking a risk that backfired. He clearly misjudged the player and now the team has to just hope that Rask can turn things around between now and 2022, because that deal is going to be extraordinarily hard, if not totally impossible, to trade.

Finally, you have the endless debate on Cam Ward. Francis gave Ward a two-year extension at nearly half of his long-term $6+ million AAV that was handed out by Jim Rutherford.

Ward has been Carolina’s best goalie over the last few seasons, but that’s only because Francis and company couldn’t find a goalie to come in and outperform Ward’s below-league-average numbers and take the number one job.

Shifting gears to player recalls, the only troubling moves - or lack thereof - came this season. As the Hurricanes fell down the standings, no players were recalled and no trades were made. They kind of just watched everything fall apart and did absolutely nothing to fix it.

All in all, Ron Francis put a lot of belief into his young NHL players. Sometimes that worked out, and other times it blew up in his face. Like in almost every other facet, he was nothing more than average. Being average, nothing more and nothing less, was a common theme during his tenure.

Ultimately, being average, combined with the “patience” that he practiced and preached incessantly for nearly four years, led to his removal from the GM position.

Grade: C