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Ron Francis’ removal from Hurricanes GM role jolts a stagnant organization

Tom Dundon’s bombshell Wednesday night shows that progress for the Hurricanes will henceforth be measured in a different way.

Jamie Kellner

Were you on the fence about renewing your season tickets when the email hit your inbox yesterday morning? Wanted to see a reason to spend good money on a Carolina Hurricanes team staring nine playoff-less years in the face? Your wish is Tom Dundon’s command.

Two months after promising change and a fresh look at a stagnant organization, Dundon delivered in stunning fashion on Wednesday night. The “promotion” of Ron Francis to president of hockey operations is a shot across the bow of an organization that for far too long has been stuck in its ways. If you’re not on board, as Dundon made clear, you’d better hop on tout suite or you’re next.

Let’s start with this: Dundon and Francis always seemed like a shotgun marriage that wouldn’t be long for this world. Francis is legendary for his patience - remember last week when he insisted that the team is on the right track despite going in circles for most of the past three years? - and Dundon, with apologies for understating the obvious, is not. When Dundon spoke of Bill Peters, he did so glowingly. When he spoke of Francis, he did so respectfully.

The difference between the two was noteworthy, and while by all accounts the relationship between Dundon and Francis was professional in every way, it was obvious from the first second that it was not a long-term fit. Francis had his plan, and he stuck by it, come hell or high water. Dundon wanted to see progress, and he has more money than patience. The events of the past month may have accelerated the timeline, but this day was coming one way or another.

General managers, broadly speaking, have three methods by which to improve their team: free agent signings, trades and the draft. A successful GM needs to hit on, at minimum, two of the three. You could make the argument that Francis whiffed on all three. He rarely dabbled in free agency; in fact, in his four years as GM, he only signed eight players directly from another team, none of them real difference-makers with the possible exception of Justin Williams:

  • 2014: Brad Malone, Tim Gleason, Jay McClement
  • 2015: none
  • 2016: Lee Stempniak, Viktor Stalberg
  • 2017: Scott Darling, Justin Williams, Josh Jooris

So Francis’ failings in free agency weren’t just in who he signed, but also in his general inactivity in the free agent market in the first place.

As for trades, all you really need to know is that Francis never, not once, made a trade involving NHL players on both sides of the deal. That’s inexcusable, and could be seen as either him overvaluing his players or being too nervous to be “the guy who gave up on [player]”. Either way, it’s not sustainable.

Which brings us to the draft. The NHL is now a young person’s league, and it’s not a league that lends itself to years-long rebuilds. (Ask Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, who conducted his own rebuild on the fly in the span of about four days before this year’s deadline.) If you’re not getting a contribution from a first-round pick, at most, two years after the player is selected, then in today’s league you’re left in the dust.

Francis had five first-round picks in his four years in charge: Haydn Fleury, Noah Hanifin, Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier and Martin Necas. Of those, one - Hanifin - is anything more than a fringe contributor at this point. Fleury isn’t a bust, but he’s not what you’d want from a seventh pick. Gauthier has stagnated in Charlotte in his first full year as a professional. Bean is a complete unknown; he could be a second-pairing anchor, or he could be Ryan Murphy, and there’s no way to know how that ends. Necas looks very promising but it’s too early to evaluate yet.

He struck gold with Sebastian Aho, and Warren Foegele and/or Lucas Wallmark might yet amount to something, but the open secret is that the Canes under Francis have been a generally poor-drafting team. Combine that with the inability to improve the team through other methods, and it’s a recipe for the spinning-wheels rebuild that Francis has presided over.

So, what now?

Francis is now “president of hockey operations.” Don’t let the title fool you; this is a reassignment in lieu of a firing. Dundon is a smart guy. He knows better than to fire a franchise legend and Hall of Famer outright. This is a well-used trick in years past; in fact, when Jim Rutherford stepped down as Canes GM in 2014, he briefly remained as team president. Lou Lamoriello did the same thing with the Devils. Dundon’s statement makes clear that, despite his title, Francis will only be involved in hockey ops decisions in an advisory role, so while he will still (presumably) have an office on PNC’s fourth floor, he’s not going to be a day-to-day part of the operation anymore.

More to the point, the Canes did not have a president of hockey operations until last night at 8:00, and as soon as Francis takes another job they will once again not have one.

A good bit is being made of the fact that the new GM will report to Dundon rather than to Francis or to Hurricanes president Don Waddell (for whom the writing is also on the wall at this point). Every GM in the league reports to the owner, whether directly or through an intermediary like Waddell, who served as Peter Karmanos’ proxy. This isn’t a big deal, at least in terms of the organizational tree. Dundon wants to be more involved in decision-making, as is his right, and whoever the new GM is will agree to that setup as part of taking the job.

Which brings us to the question of who will take over. It’s fair to assume that Dundon made this move now to get a jump on the market, and that could mean he has a candidate in mind already. One name to watch is Julien BriseBois, the assistant GM to Steve Yzerman in Tampa. Dundon name-dropped Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at his introductory press conference, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him dip his toes in that pool. BriseBois has interviewed for countless jobs over the past few years, he’s analytically inclined, and he’s relatively young. That has to appeal to Dundon, and the Lightning’s success over the past few years won’t hurt BriseBois’ case either.

Whoever it is will need to work with Bill Peters who, to the extent there was a power struggle, came out victorious. My read is that there was a good bit of tension between the coach and GM, but it wasn’t enough that would prevent them from continuing to work together. In other words, it may have contributed, but it was no more the one reason for this move than signing Darling was.

The Hurricanes knew when Dundon took over that they were entering a new phase of their history. Yesterday’s bombshell reinforces that a hundredfold. Francis may have been the right hire at the time, but it simply wasn’t working, and he was the one to pay the price. He won’t be the last.

Storm Advisory

  • Mark Armstrong checks in with his thoughts on the move... [ABC11]
  • did Luke DeCock, who first broke the news yesterday. [News and Observer]
  • Elliotte Friedman says that this was in the works, and Francis was kicking around resigning as recently as last weekend. [Sportsnet]
  • And here are some of the comments on Twitter from the hockey media: