At the end of my first conversation with new Carolina owner Tom Dundon, he said, “Don’t hesitate to reach out. If you are talking to me, you are talking about the Hurricanes. That’s never a bad thing.”
Well, we’re all taking about the Hurricanes today, and their surprise removal of Ron Francis from the top hockey position in the organization.
Francis stabilized an undernourished organization once he became general manager in 2014. Like every GM, he had his hits and misses, but the true measure is whether or not you leave the team better off than you found it. There is no debate he accomplished that goal.
Dundon bent over backwards in our conversation not to criticize Francis. He said several times that he felt there was plenty of room for the Hall-of-Famer’s opinion in hockey decision-making. But, the owner confirmed what we all suspected — that while both agreed the team needed improvements, they disagreed on the way to get there.
“I want to use Ron’s experience and knowledge with a different style and structure,” Dundon said Thursday morning. “He is a valuable resource. But our styles couldn’t be any different. It is no more complicated than that.”
The team’s media release made it clear: the Hurricanes will hire a new GM, who will report directly to the owner. He is not someone who will fade to the background, but, make no mistake, there will be plenty of interest. There are only 31 of these jobs, and they are coveted.
So, what does Dundon want?
“I think what I’m looking for, is we have to be comfortable with each other. That’s the most important thing,” he answered. “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.”
One thing stands out from that answer: “I don’t want to make decisions.” In the aftermath of Francis’s redistribution, the sense was 100 per cent opposite, that Dundon did want final say.
When asked about that, he referred to an ESPN.com article by Tim McManus on how the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles approach fourth-down decisions.
Here is the relevant passage:
(The Eagles) went for it on fourth down 26 times during the regular season — second only to the Green Bay Packers (28) — converting a league-high 17 attempts. That’s a 65 per cent success rate. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer rattled those numbers off the top of his head when speaking to reporters via conference call Wednesday, a sign that the Eagles’ fourth-down prowess is on Minnesota’s mind.
“They have been very aggressive, going for it on fourth-and-1 a lot of times, and then sometimes they’ll be up by 20 points, it’s fourth-and-6 and they’ll go for it,” he said. “So we have to be prepared at any point.”
The situations in which the Eagles decide to strike might seem random, but in fact they are quite calculated. And they’re often decided before the start of the game — or even before the start of the season. The approach is driven by an analytics team so involved in the operation that two members of the department — including coaching assistant/linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti, a Dartmouth grad with a degree in economics — communicate with Pederson in-game.
The pair weighs in after just about every touchdown on whether to go for one or two; during the final two minutes of each half to discuss timeouts; and when the team gets into what is considered fourth-down territory, usually around midfield and beyond. Sometimes Pederson initiates the dialogue; other times, the men upstairs do.
“After [Pederson has] made the third-down call the phones can be silent for a few seconds, and one of the guys might chime in and say, ‘Hey Coach, if this ends up short fourth-and-2’ — I’m using fake terminology — ‘it’s green, go for it. The charts say go for it,'” explained offensive coordinator Frank Reich. “Or, ‘Hey, if it’s anything less than fourth-and-3, we’re good. Other than that, it’s your call, Coach.’ Or, ‘Anything more than fourth-and-10, no.’
“The analogy I think of is kind of like a stoplight. There’s green, there’s yellow and there’s red, and then there’s shades of green, there’s shades of yellow and then there’s shades of red. So some of them are, ‘Hey, it’s green. Yellow, proceed with caution’ — and that’s how it operates.”
Now back to Dundon: “I don’t know other owners, I’m assuming they have sign-off. But that’s how I look at this. Green and red you can prove, yellow is the things that are debatable. I have no interest in yellow. We have to create the structure so that we know the difference…I want to make as few decisions as possible, because we’ve created a structure that is clearer for everyone.”
“Common sense and judgment usually win. Ego loses.”
One thing Dundon disagreed with is the idea that something happened at the deadline that caused the final rift. He said the team was considering adding before a home-heavy stretch in February, but it didn’t go well. Therefore both he and Francis decided it wasn’t worth what it would take to acquire more at the end. The cost, in terms of Carolina’s best young players/prospects, was too great.
In some ways, the fact the Hurricanes can’t make immediate moves is good for the franchise. Dundon’s desire to do something impactful could be exploited. Dealing with other managers is like swimming with sharks. They sense your needs and squeeze you.
The Hurricanes have some very smart people who surrounded Francis in the hockey operations department. They did an excellent job of finding players despite financial limitations. Do they stay? Or, is anyone loyal to Francis on the way out? (Hint: that doesn’t strike me as a good idea.)
One GM told me years ago that the best candidates ask themselves, “Do I really think I can win here?” They will be interviewing Dundon as much as he interviews him.
1. Let me clear up one thing: I reported in my initial blog Wednesday night that there were rumours last weekend Francis was considering resigning. After I spoke to Dundon, I was told Francis was informed of the change on Friday. What this tells me is people knew something was coming, but not exactly what it was — or they decided not to provide further information once the outcome became clear. Whatever the case, people with much better insight than me were not surprised at all. Francis has not spoken publicly, but I think he’s hurt. He really wanted to see this through.
2. Dundon would not discuss specific names of potential replacements. He lives in Dallas, and a couple of sources indicated two people he knows well and may give him advice: Brenden Morrow and Dave Tippett. Dundon has praised his head coach, Bill Peters, so I’m not sure Tippett is a fit. He is also very close with Francis from their days in Hartford. Another one-time Star, Joe Nieuwendyk, also works for Carolina.
3. He has also made it clear he will add to his hockey analytics department. That, and his comments above, had several executives guessing the Hurricanes will take a run at Kyle Dubas if Toronto does not promote him. Only hitch: Dubas and Francis are also tight. Sault Ste. Marie connection.
4. Very interesting appearance by Edmonton CEO Bob Nicholson during last weekend’s Rangers/Oilers game. Among his comments to David Amber, Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Doug MacLean: “We have a plan and we are going to get it right,” “There will be some change, but we are not going to make those until the end of the year,” “I think we want to make sure that we get the right culture in the dressing room,” and “Fans will buy in if they can understand the plan once we make the changes.” About Paul Coffey, he added, “Where his role will be in the future, we will evaluate that at the end of the season.”
Nicholson pointed out the Oilers have changed coaches and managers too many times, and that shouldn’t continue unless the alternative will make you better. That made me wonder if Edmonton will wait and see who is let go by other teams before making any final commitments. But the biggest question still is: who will be making the final decision about on- and off-ice personnel? Will it be Nicholson, Peter Chiarelli, Wayne Gretzky, Daryl Katz or…someone else?
5. Oscar Klefbom gutted through a shoulder injury that has affected both his ability to defend, and the shot that scored a surprising 12 goals last season. As 2017-18 went off the tracks, it didn’t make a lot of sense that he was playing. I think they are showcasing him for a potential trade. He’s a good player (especially when healthy) with a very manageable contract.
6. At a time where the Oilers and AHL affiliate Bakersfield took heat for lack of development, Jujhar Khaira is a bright spot in a difficult season. He looks like a contributor. While in the AHL, the coaching staff worked on both his foot-speed and his quickness with on-ice decision-making. Both have greatly improved. Edmonton has to find more forwards to fill out the spots around Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They’ve got three young forwards ready to become full-time pros — Tyler Benson, Cameron Hebig and Kailer Yamamoto (who has been on a tear). Their growth is important.
7. Finally on Edmonton, the Oilers took an interesting gamble last week signing Dylan Larkin’s older brother, Colin, to a tryout contract for the rest of this season, and a one-year deal for 2018-19. He is the first player ever from Division III UMass-Boston to sign with an NHL team. He had 148 points in 111 games in four seasons, and, not surprisingly, is a good-skating big guy. I understand Scott Harlow is the scout who pushed for him, and I’m curious to see how it goes.
8. That was a special moment, the NHL and the Panthers surprising the Stoneman Douglas players with a Stanley Cup skate. Florida will also provide the school with a charter flight (big-league menu included) to the National Championships, beginning March 22 in Plymouth, Minn.
9. As Nick Kypreos reported, the Capitals signed GM Brian MacLellan to a contract extension. They generally don’t announce such things, so it is not a stunner the move occurred quietly. It doesn’t appear as if head coach Barry Trotz received one, so this will be a developing story as the playoffs progress.
Since last summer, when the organization denied Arizona, Buffalo and Florida permission to speak to Todd Reirden, we’ve assumed him to be the heir apparent. It would be something if Washington — which looked as good as it has all year in whipping Toronto at the Naval Academy — finally busted through, and Trotz chose to hit the open market with that success. What happens to Trotz and to Joel Quenneville determines a lot this summer.
10. For most of the season, we’ve assumed Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello is in the final year of his contract, too. It’s difficult to determine the exact wording, but that is not the case. While the team announced he had a three-year term as manager when he was hired, there are two more years in an unspecified role. What we don’t know (and don’t expect the Maple Leafs to reveal) is how it works, but this adds another wrinkle to the team’s front-office future.
Chris Johnston reported that there was a meeting last summer featuring discussion of a succession plan, which may have been triggered by Colorado’s pursuit of Kyle Dubas. I think it’s still a moving target. It’s going to be Brendan Shanahan’s decision, and there’s no indication of what he’s going to do.
11. The morning after the outdoor game, Nick and I were waiting for our flight at Reagan Airport in Washington. We were watching the NFL combine on ESPN. There are a lot of politics involved, but in a sport constantly looking for opportunities to increase revenue, it seems a lost opportunity that hockey prospects do not go on the ice at the NHL combine.
One of the things we are learning about this next generation of player is that they spend more time working on-ice on skills development than ever before. It is not unusual for the skills competition at All-Star Weekend to outdraw the game itself. People love to be wowed, and, if the NHL and NHLPA want to get together on this one, why can’t it be an entertaining television and sponsorship possibility?
Back when I covered the CFL, then-Calgary Stampeder Nik Lewis showed us a drill where he caught footballs from a baseball pitching machine. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen, and it taught me that sometimes a player’s greatest talents aren’t obvious in game action. Watching the quarterbacks throw the different patterns, the receivers running routes and catching multiple passes, the defensive backs practising their drops into coverage — I don’t see a good reason why NHL prospects can’t do accuracy shooting, fastest skater, hardest shot, whatever you want. You can’t tell me there wouldn’t be an audience.
12. Regina was supposed to host a WHL outdoor game last month between the hometown Pats and Moose Jaw. It was cancelled because of low ticket sales. The league is looking for fresh markets in Canada to host these events and the NHL was going to send a delegation to scout the Saskatchewan capital. There was worry the cancellation would scuttle Regina’s chances, but I don’t think that’s correct. If anything, the lesson learned was don’t hold it in February. The province would be a great host and the Oilers, in particular, would be a big draw.
13. Several NHL teams are pitching Brandon’s Zach Whitecloud this week. A free-agent defenceman from NCAA Bemidji State, Whitecloud played for Team Canada at one of the pre-Olympic tournaments. Los Angeles has long been viewed as a serious contender since he went to its development camp and the Kings employ Ted Belisle, who recruited Whitecloud to college. Detroit, Tampa and Vegas are believed to be among the other chasers.
14. During our broadcast of Islanders/Vancouver on Monday night, Dan Murphy led a discussion on Brock Boeser’s next contract with the Canucks. They are eligible to extend him on July 1, and the expectation is they will try. Boeser played nine games last season, which puts him one shy of being eligible for an offer sheet if he isn’t signed by next summer.
The richest contract signed by any player who can’t receive an offer sheet and doesn’t have arbitration rights is the six-year, $6.75 million AAV deal signed two summers ago by Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary. That one looks like it will work out very nicely for both player and team; I figured it would be the baseline in any Boeser discussions. Then, Iain MacIntyre reminded me of something: that contract was signed before Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Jack Eichel’s extensions. Those deals raise the bar for everyone else. Boeser’s new deal could very well eclipse Gaudreau’s.
15. Boeser’s incredibly unfortunate season-ending fluke injury re-ignited a debate about open bench doors during play. This came up at a recent GM meeting, but it was pointed out that skates would be flying everywhere if only over-the-boards changes were allowed. That was not an appealing option.
16. After spending two days in Vancouver, there is little doubt the number one thing the Canucks are looking for is lottery luck. After that, the most important assessments they will make are on the players they hope eventually will be top-six forwards: Jonathan Dahlen, Adam Gaudette and Elias Pettersson among them. They are figuring out realistic timelines for when each can be expected to make an impact, and how they bridge the gap until that time.
I don’t think they want to wade too heavily into free agency after Loui Eriksson, and there will be major holes if the Sedins decide not to return. That’s one reason they took a calculated gamble on one of Travis Green’s former WHLers, Brendan Leipsic. He’s skilled with a bit of an edge, and this is a good opportunity for both team and player. One unknown: how long does Pettersson stay in Sweden?
17. Darren Archibald says he’s only got one move, the one he used to score on a penalty shot against Jaroslav Halak Monday night. Where did you learn it? “I copied it from Joffrey Lupul,” he laughed. He remembers at least three times it worked.
Archibald got a pro-rated $650,000 contract from Vancouver in February, adding some oomph to a lineup that needed it. He’s also showed a scoring touch, with three goals in the past eight games. It would surprise no one if the Canucks extend him, and if they don’t, someone else should. Watching him score that goal is a reminder of the skill you need to get so much as a sniff in this league.
18. The Capitals have tried just about every possible road to the post-season. They’ve coasted, knowing the Stanley Cup is the only thing that matters. They’ve stressed the details, playing the regular season with purpose of approaching the playoffs the same way. This year’s team is more difficult to quantify. The win on Saturday was one of the few times all season they looked…unburdened.
Outside of John Carlson, Alexander Ovechkin and maybe Dmitri Orlov, a lot of their players have gone through lengthy rough stretches. As we left Annapolis, there was hope that win would energize the team, get it surging before April. Then, they looked meh in a 3-0 loss in Anaheim on Monday night. I’m not sure anyone in the organization has a good handle on their identity. There’s more uncertainty than we are used to seeing from them.
19. There is concern about Braden Holtby. But having him back up for a little bit while working on his game in practice is not a bad thing. It worked for Henrik Lundqvist and it has worked for Carey Price. Jeez, name a great goalie, and it has probably worked for them, too.
20. It’s easy to be great in a great situation. The true measure is when things aren’t going smoothy. It was impossible not to be impressed watching an admittedly disappointed Henrik Lundqvist carry the Rangers’ new blood to victories in Vancouver and Calgary. Fifty saves in both. That’s leadership.
21. Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have set such high standards for themselves that they are having excellent seasons and barely get mentioned as Hart Trophy candidates. At 32, Ovechkin — who leads hard-charging Patrik Laine by two in the goal-scoring race — is on pace to be the oldest league-leader in that category since Phil Esposito in 1974-75. The five eldest to lead the NHL in goals in a season — in order: Bill Cook, Gordie Howe, Nels Stewart, Maurice Richard and Esposito — are all in the Hall of Fame. Ovechkin will join them three years after his playing career ends. He’s also got a shot at being the oldest 50-goal scorer since Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06. Johnny Bucyk holds the record, 38 days shy of his 36th birthday when he finished the 1970-71 season with 51 goals.
22. Arizona signed 2017 fifth-rounder Tyler Steenburgen to an entry-level contract on Tuesday. You may remember him as the scorer of Canada’s winning goal at the 2018 World Juniors. I’d heard that Coyotes’ assistant GM Steve Sullivan worked the phones to have Steenburgen make that team, and, to some degree, he confirmed that.
“You can’t lobby for someone to get on the team,” he said Tuesday in Vancouver. “That’s up to the player and the coaches. But, I did push to have him invited (to the camp). Hockey Canada worries a lot about character, and they didn’t know Tyler. He wasn’t on any of the younger-age national teams. I wanted to let them know he would be a good fit.” How often did you bug them? “I wasn’t that bad,” Sullivan laughed.
23. Sullivan was in Buffalo the night Canada won, but I was surprised to hear that he didn’t seek out Steenburgen during the celebration. “That was his time,” he answered. One of the things I’ve always remembered occurred during the 2003 tournament in Halifax. Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup was another Arizona prospect, David LeNeveu. He got one start, and it didn’t go well. Mike Barnett was the Coyotes GM at the time, and I saw him seek out the goalie to tell him that the organization still believed in him and not to get down. Thought that was a great gesture.
24. Sullivan was one of the smartest and mentally toughest players I’ve ever covered. He’s not sure he wants to be a GM, but he had a great answer when I asked him what he’s learned about working in a front office. “What I’ve learned,” he said, “Is that I don’t know anything.”
25. In the aftermath of the trade deadline, I asked junior expert extraordinaire Sam Cosentino for feedback on what went down with some of the prospects. He had an interesting answer about the upcoming draft.
Sam said he would compare it to 2008, where 12 defencemen went in the first round. Eight of them were right-shot defenders, some real studs among the group: John Carlson, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo. Add Zach Bogosian, Michael Del Zotto, Jake Gardiner, Tyler Myers, Luca Sbisa and Luke Schenn — you’ve got a lot of guys who hit 500 games (Sbisa is at 495.) In his February rankings, Sam had 13 defencemen in the first round, six with right shots. With defence and centre being the most premium spots to pick, it’s a really good year to take a shot at a top pairing defender.
26. I also asked Cosentino for his opinion on Libor Hajek, who the Rangers wanted from Tampa in the Ryan McDonagh deal. He said Hajek’s game went to a new level at the 2018 world juniors, where the Czech Republic reached the semi-finals for first time in 12 years and has benefited by playing meaningful minutes since being acquired by Memorial Cup host Regina. One thing Sam said I really liked: that Hajek, who originally played for WHL Saskatoon, studied the city and history of the team before going there. I think that kind of intellectual curiosity says a lot about a person.
27. Well before the trade deadline, word was the Blues would not add if they felt Jay Bouwmeester’s health wouldn’t hold. Seeing that he’s out for the rest of the season adds greater context to St. Louis’s decisions.
28. The early success of Seattle’s ticket drive will likely mean a franchise vote as early as the next Board of Governors meeting in June. The one thing that sticks out to me: the 2020-21 season (when Key Arena renovations are to be completed) is a potential lockout/strike year. That’s less than ideal.
29. Mentioned the Sloan Sports Conference last week, and how impressed I was with the ideas presented. There was a smaller event held last weekend, known as the Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference. I wasn’t there, but searched out some of the presentations via the Twitter hashtag #VanHac. Again, some very interesting ideas. Now the videos are being posted to the event’s YouTube page.
30. Back in a past life, I recorded the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from beginning to end and re-watched it in the summer. Covering the NBA at the start of my career eroded my interest in the college game, but I check in from time-to-time. There is a major scandal brewing, and ESPN reported last week that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on wiretap discussing illegal payments to players. Miller is fighting back, and has hired former NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly to represent him.
31. No blog next week. Brief in-season break.