The best and worst moves by Ron Francis as Hurricanes GM

HC at Noon discussion on giving new Hurricanes owner Thomas Dundon the benefit of the doubt for his handling of Ron Francis.

Ron Francis was relieved of his GM duties after more than three years on the job by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon Wednesday night. The Hall of Fame player had navigated a budget team through a slow rebuild up, during which time the Hurricanes became a favourite “breakout pick” in the pre-season.

But none of the hope and potential have come to fruition.

So even though the Canes are still in the playoff hunt, just four points out of a wild-card spot, Francis was effectively demoted since the new GM will report directly to Dundon. As the Raleigh News and Observer‘s Luke DeCock wrote, this move is about personalities as much as it is performance-based. The owner seems set on big changes to get Carolina over the hump, while Francis was committed to patience.

From DeCock:

“That’s Dundon’s style: bold moves and sweeping changes. He’s going to invest heavily in analytics on both the hockey and business sides, looking for any advantage to press. Patience has not been a hallmark of his business history.

That isn’t Francis’ style: The lack of a significant player-for-player trade in his entire four-season tenure is an indication of that. He deserves a ton of credit for fixing the salary-cap mess Jim Rutherford left behind and patiently rebuilding the foundation of the franchise with prospects and draft picks, and the franchise appears to have two Francis-drafted stars in Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas.”

Dundon talked with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman Thursday morning and confirmed his vision on how to improve the Canes differed from Francis’. He also discussed what he wanted in a new GM; it’s not a yes man.

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“I actually like to disagree and argue. I don’t want someone to come in and just do what I say, and I don’t want to make decisions. Someone to create a structure of how something is a good idea, and now we are going to get it done,” Dundon told Friedman.

But looking back from a purely hockey perspective, how did Francis do in his nearly four years as Carolina’s GM? He made no impactful player-for-player trades and most of the bigger names he was involved with were rental sell-offs. He had some trade wins, but most were working around the edges.

BEST TRADES BY FRANCIS

2015: Carolina sends Andrej Sekera to Los Angeles for a 2016 first-rounder and Roland McKeown
At his first trade deadline, Francis was able to ship pending UFA Sekera to the playoff-bubble Kings for 2014 second-rounder McKeown and a conditional first that ended up as a 2016 pick. A couple years earlier Francis’ predecessor acquired Sekera when he had term left for Jamie McBain and second-round pick, so the Canes were big winners from an asset-management perspective.

With the first-round pick, Francis and the Canes took Julien Gauthier, a point-per-game junior player who has 15 points in 52 games as an AHL rookie and has spent most of his season on the fourth line.

2016: Carolina sends a second- and third-round pick to Chicago for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell
In his second summer as GM, Francis traded picks to the Hawks for depth-line toughness in Bickell and scoring upside in Teravainen. Bickell was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and forced to retire, while Teravainen is currently leading the Canes in scoring, six years after being drafted 18th overall.

Francis signed the 23-year-old Finn to a two-year deal with a $2.86-million cap hit, and today Teravainen looks like just the kind of low-cost contributor the Hawks need. He played in Finland’s top league as a teenager and was always pinned as a potential breakout player. As badly as the Canes need to find some goaltending, goal scoring has been a problem as well: Carolina is 26th in even-strength goals. Teravainen is proving to be a key addition.

WORST TRADE BY FRANCIS

2017: Carolina sends a third-round pick to Chicago for Scott Darling
Shortly after the Hurricanes were eliminated from playoff contention for the eighth straight season (and third under Francis) the GM paid a small price to acquire pending UFA Darling. Though only a backup in his NHL career, Darling had sparkling numbers in three seasons with the Hawks and there was every reason to believe he could be the next No. 2 worth promoting to a starting job.

The cost in trade wasn’t high, but because of Darling’s contract status Francis also had to sign him, which he did for four years and a $4.15-million cap hit. Goalies are often a crapshoot and it’s the most difficult position to project, but this move was bold and costly and, ultimately, the biggest reason Carolina is sitting on the outside yet again.

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Francis made so few “big” trades that there aren’t many winners or losers to choose from. In another, he bet on Eddie Lack eventually being able to take over the No. 1 job from Cam Ward, signing Lack to an extension, and then eventually trading him for less than he acquired him for. And in some sense you could say trading pending UFA Eric Staal for a couple of second-rounders and Aleksi Saarela was a loss because of the success Staal has had in Minnesota, but there’s no telling if he would have gotten out of his funk with the Hurricanes. Besides, Saarela is having a decent first season in North America with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.

At the draft table, Francis seems to have picked well, at least in the opening round – and it’s too early to make a final determination on the later picks. But Francis went defence-heavy in Round 1, selecting Haydn Fleury (seventh), Noah Hanifin (5th), Jake Bean (13th) with the first picks in his first three drafts before finally taking Necas 12th overall last summer.

But the ultimate question is whether or not Francis left Carolina in a better position than when he took it over.

The Hurricanes were an 83-point team when Francis assumed GM duties, a total they only barely eclipsed in each of the past two seasons and won’t blow by in 2017-18. But today the team is better situated to move into the future with confidence: Necas is an exciting prospect in the Czech Republic; two of Carolina’s top young defencemen are signed to long-term, team-friendly deals; second-rounder Sebastian Aho has 51 points in 63 games as an NHL sophomore; and the average age of the team is much more in line with the current league climate.

Sure, Francis had his whiffs (from Darling to Marcus Kruger), but which GM hasn’t? At the very least, the Hurricanes have more tradable assets now if they choose to take an aggressive approach to the trade deadline, than they did in 2014.

But the top priorities for the Canes to address under their new GM are the same their old GM couldn’t entirely figure out: scoring and goaltending. If whoever succeeds Francis in the GM chair can get the needed upgrades there, the Hurricanes should finally be able to have the breakthrough many expected from them this season.

If it does finally come to fruition, Francis’ work shouldn’t be forgotten; he’s set the table for success.

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