Ron Francis scored extremely high on the likeability factor when he was a player, but he’ll have to make some difficult and possibly unpopular decisions as a GM if he hopes to see the franchise escape the cycle of mediocrity.
When Paul Maurice was in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, he had a humorous story about his days with the Carolina Hurricanes. When he was hired as an assistant coach with the Windsor Spitfires in 1998, he was told by owner Peter Karmanos that he had a job for life.
“And 15 years later they fire me,” Maurice said. “Where’s the loyalty?”
Yes, the Hurricanes tend to take care of their own and even though they went off the board when they hired Kirk Muller as their coach, their model has been to promote from within. And that was no more evident than Monday afternoon when they filled the vacuum created by Jim Rutherford’s departure by filling their hockey operations office with company men Ron Francis in the GM’s chair and Brian Tatum and Mike Vellucci as his assistants.
Francis vows to be his own man, but he’s also the product of a system that has decent, but not great results. The problem with the Hurricanes is that they’re like the little kid with the curl. When they’re good, they’re very good. But when they’re bad…
Discuss amongst yourself whether this is a good policy. On the one hand, it gives an organization continuity and a sense of loyalty that is undoubted appreciated and returned. But the roster of former and long-time Hurricanes is stunning to say the least. Former captain and Stanley Cup winner Rod Brind’Amour is (for now) an assistant coach. Goalie coach Greg Stefan has been in the organization for 20 years. The director of player personnel is Glen Wesley. Near as I can tell, the Hurricanes are the only team in the NHL to have a director of forwards development, and that job is currently held by Cory Stillman. Former Hurricane tough guy Jeff Daniels is the coach of the Hurricanes American League team in Charlotte.
All of which would make the Hurricanes a formidable foe in a hockey tournament involving all 30 NHL front offices, but also one that seems pretty comfortable with mediocrity. While their efforts to reward hard-working people is commendable, it doesn’t seem to set a very high bar for long-term employment.
And that, if anything else, is what Ron Francis is going to have to change with the Hurricanes. Does he have the stomach to take a jackhammer to the organization and breathe new life into it? Well, there were few players with more integrity or a higher likeability factor than Francis had when he played, so it will require a greater degree of abrasiveness for him. Now we’re not suggesting he become the second coming of Eddie Shore, but clearly there needs to be more accountability in this organization.
It will be up to Francis to create an identity for this franchise. Can anyone define exactly what The Hurricane Way is? Best I can come up with is The Hurricane Way currently is to either be spectacularly good or pretty bad with very little in between. There are a lot of teams that would trade their playoff success record for the Hurricanes’, but there’s no reason why this team should not be able to have a sustained period where it’s a contender.
Francis is left with a host of difficult decisions, starting with whether or not he wants to keep Muller behind the bench or replace him. If he decides to go the latter route, the easy choice would be Brind’Amour. But perhaps the better choice would be to go outside the organization. He also has to figure out what the long-term plan is for Eric Staal and what he’s going to do about the team’s goaltending.
But most of all, he’s going to have to improve the franchise’s performance both at the draft table and, more importantly, after the players are drafted. The Hurricanes have a woeful record of player procurement and developing lately. For example, they have no NHL regulars and just a combined 205 games from the players they took in the 2008 and ’09 drafts. That’s one of the worst records in the league for a crop of players who should be now hitting their strides as NHLers. The next year, a draft in which they hit home runs with both Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk, the Hurricanes took goalie Frederik Andersen 197th overall, but allowed him to go back into the draft before being selected by the Anaheim Ducks.
Francis has apprenticed long enough and undoubtedly deserves this chance to prove himself. But it will be his ability to distance himself from The Hurricane Way that will likely dictate his success more than his ability to toe the line.