Ron Francis. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes endured a nightmare season, but GM Ron Francis thinks his team's record was misleading. He's optimistic about the future.
Ron Francis accomplished a lot as a player. He won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he played in four All-Star Games, and he lined his trophy case with a Selke, three Lady Byngs and a King Clancy. He hit the 100-point mark three times. He's a top-five scorer in NHL history. 'Ronnie Franchise' also did some marvellous things captaining the Carolina Hurricanes in the twilight of his career, sporting a classy swirl of grey in his hair. His 77 points in 2001-02 were the second most all-time by a 38-year-old. He was hockey's answer to Cal Ripken Jr.
But even someone as decorated as Francis had to realize he inherited a boat full of holes when he took over as Carolina Hurricanes GM last April. The Canes had missed the playoffs five straight seasons. They didn't have a single prospect outside the NHL ranked in Future Watch 2014's top 75. Captain Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward, two prime components of their 2006 Cup-winning team, were shells of their old selves. Alexander Semin wasn't justifying the contract extension that paid him $7 million annually.
At the THN office, we couldn't have been more bearish on the Canes entering 2014-15. We weren't confident each of their top six forwards would bounce back and, more importantly, we felt they had one of the NHL's weakest bluelines behind stalwarts Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera. Things looked bleak for Francis' Canes, and that's how they turned out. Carolina has stumbled to its worst points percentage since 2002-03. Semin has somehow gotten worse. Eric and Jordan Staal combined have produced less than what Eric used to singlehandedly.
So it would be forgivable, then, to catch Francis in an ornery mood when it's time to discuss what went wrong this year. That simply isn't the case, though. Francis is downright upbeat, and he makes an interesting case as to why his team isn't nearly as hopeless as it may seem on paper.
For one, he feels injuries set his team on a rocky path from the start this season. A broken leg kept Jordan Staal out until late December. Skinner, fresh off a resurgent 31-goal campaign, missed the start of the year with a concussion. Even Eric Staal battled an upper-body malady early on. And the Canes stumbled horrifically out of the gate, losing their first eight games.
"I don't care what team you are – if you lose three of your top six forwards, it makes it tough to win in this league," Francis said. "It's tough when you're healthy, let alone when you're missing top-end guys."
Francis isolates a window after his team got healthy in the New Year and before he unloaded pieces like Sekera, Jiri Tlusty and Tim Gleason leading up to the trade deadline, claiming the Canes played highly competitive hockey when at full strength. He's right. Carolina went 14-7-3 between Jan. 1 and the March 2 deadline. Before: 10-23-4. After: 5-10-4.
"Unfortunately, being out of the playoffs, we had to make some moves and unload some of the UFAs we weren't going to be able to re-sign," Francis said. "That set us back a bit. But there are a lot of good, young pieces in our lineup."
The Canes do have some youngsters to get excited about. Elias Lindholm, drafted fifth overall in 2013, took a large step forward this year and appears on his way to stardom. Red Deer Rebels D-man Haydn Fleury was widely considered the best defenseman not named Aaron Ekblad in the 2014 draft class, and he should be an impact NHLer within a couple years. It's been a year to forget for Skinner, but he has 115 NHL goals before his 23rd birthday. Faulk, an absolute workhorse at both ends of the ice, spiked his offense to an unexpected level this year, with 15 goals and 49 points in 80 games. As Francis pointed out, four of the Canes' top five scorers this season are 23 and younger.
So Carolina does have a decent foundation upon which to build a winning team, especially when it still has assets to sell off. Eric Staal's contract expires next season, and he would command a king's ransom at the 2016 trade deadline should Carolina dwell in the basement again, which is probable for at least one more season. Ward's deal expires, too, making him a suddenly attractive rental for a goalie-starved team. That pair could net the Canes some serious assets and set them up for a much brighter future. The Arizona Coyotes accomplished such a feat this year, adding tantalizing prospect Anthony Duclair and a bushel of draft picks.
Speaking of that draft, the 2015 edition will net Carolina another exciting piece. Francis absolutely has the lottery on the mind – he's the first to broach the subject of ping-pong balls – and he hasn't abandoned the Connor McDavid pipe dream. Francis said he's seen No. 97 play this year and probably will again.
"When he winds 'er up, the speed is, it's NHL speed already, and he thinks the game extremely well," Francis said. "The skill set is extremely good. Normally when you watch guys you can see a flaw somewhere in their game, and he looks pretty good at this point as far as having to eliminate any flaws."
Still, if McDavid ends up in a red sweater, it's more likely an Arizona sweater. Five percent more likely, to be exact. The Canes still are guaranteed one of the draft's first six picks, and this year's field is a doozie. Center Dylan Strome and D-man Noah Hanifin would have to slip unexpectedly to get within Francis' grasp, but big winger Lawson Crouse looks like an ideal fit. A heady blueliner like Ivan Provorov would join Faulk and Fleury to solidify Carolina's future in the back end for years to come.
The Canes aren't done weathering the, er, storm yet. Their roster today has a ton of holes. But the modern NHL has shown us teams can turn around their fortunes quickly. Who saw the Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators or Calgary Flames coming this year? All are keyed by youngsters playing ahead of schedule. With a bit of luck and more improvements from their blue-chippers over the next year or two, the Canes could return to relevancy. Their GM sure believes it will happen.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin