The 5 Biggest Challenges Facing Ron Francis as New Carolina Hurricanes GM
"If we have to make changes, we'll make changes."
So said new Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis at Monday's press conference, taking over the reins of the struggling team at arguably its most pressured moment since moving to North Carolina.
"The consistency aspect would be an area of concern for me," he said. "At the end of the day, this is a fresh start for everybody...and we'll analyze everything. ... We want guys who want to be here, want to win, want to be successful, and we're willing to whatever it takes to accomplish that."
Francis immediately faces the double-sided task of working around exiting GM Jim Rutherford's self-created mess from the past half-decade of mistakes while satisfying a disgruntled fanbase thirsty for a new approach.
As coaching and player evaluations loom first up on the agenda and the the draft and start of free agency move on the calendar's horizon, Francis' first months as GM will quickly force a coming of age moment for the rookie executive.
Which early challenges will immediately test Francis? A breakdown of five obstacles the 51-year-old GM will soon need to face head-on lie on the coming slides.
Settling the Coaching Staff Situation
As much as Francis, Peter Karmanos and others try to brush the topic aside, the future of the Hurricanes coaching staff remains very much on the mind of everyone involved in the organization.
Kirk Muller, while perhaps a victim of past front-office indecisiveness, has shown little indication he's capable of taking a club to the playoffs, finishing no better than 12th in the East in any of his three seasons behind the bench.
Meanwhile, assistants John MacLean and Dave Lewis have drawn criticism for the 'Canes epidemic of special-teams problems and line-matchup inconsistencies.
"In fairness, I think it's a decision that kind of needs due process," Francis said Monday, offering little indication whether firing one or more of the three is something he'll consider. Karmanos has previously praised the staff, but those statements drew enormous ire in the season's final weeks.
Is a GM change enough for one offseason? Are Muller & Co., a postseason-prepared trio? Will the fans' demands for a coaching makeover be answered? Francis has a lot to sort out before the draft and free agency even roll around.
Working Around Jim Rutherford's Baggage
If taking over as the franchise's first new GM in 20 years wasn't difficult enough, Francis will have to work his magic on a payroll cluttered with wasted cash left by his predecessor.
Washed-up Cam Ward has two years left at a $6.3 million cap hit. Eric Staal and Jordan Staal have three and nine years left at $8.25 million and $6.0 million cap hits, respectively. John-Michael Liles has two years left at a $3.875 million cap hit. The 'Canes have two years left with $950,000 of Tuomo Ruutu's retained cap hit.
Use of the team's two remaining compliance buyouts, which clear all cap hit but still require two-thirds salary payment for players 26 years old or over, would improve flexibility tremendously. But Karmanos implied Monday the team may not spend all the way to the cap in 2014-15; it doesn't seem likely that he'd be willing to fork out money that would, realistically, take the team's payroll over the salary cap.
Just filling in the remaining holes with players will be a squeeze for Francis. Fulfilling the declaration "if we have to make changes, we'll make changes" could be borderline impossible—unless Francis can pull off larceny on the trade market.
Making a Draft Statement
One critical piece of the Hurricanes' upcoming offseason will not be unfamiliar to Francis, who has been heavily involved in the club's prospect scouting and draft preparations for years.
The 'Canes are currently slated to pick seven times at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, including twice in the fourth round and No. 7 overall.
Francis will have plenty of choices for the team's top choice—the same slot where he read Jeff Skinner's name four years ago. Right wing William Nylander, perhaps the most interesting and unpredictable prospect in the top 20, could be Carolina's second consecutive top-10 selection from Sweden. OHL star LWs Michael Dal Colle (95 points in 67 games with Oshawa) and Brendan Perlini (71 points in 58 games with Niagara) may entice. On the defensive side, WHL defenseman Haydn Fleury has a Shea Weber-like presence.
Over the long run, the new GM will probably hope to end the hit-or-miss nature of Carolina's recent drafts, where gold mines like 2010 (Skinner, Justin Faulk, Frederik Andersen) contrast starkly with empty ventures like 2009 (Philipe Paradis, Brian Dumoulin, Mattias Lindstrom).
For 2014, however, Francis will just hope to put together the latest golden draft class.
Establishing an Identity for Forward Unit
A plethora of expiring contracts give Francis plenty of space to reimagine the Hurricanes' offensive corps and identify a direction moving forward.
On Monday, Francis mentioned a preference for "bigger" players. Big the current 'Canes forwards are not. The two Staal brothers were the only players among the 2013-14 unit standing taller than 6'2", and two of the three 6'2" men (Manny Malhotra and Radek Dvorak) are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this summer.
Outside of Malhotra and Dvorak, all of the 'Canes other noteworthy free-agent forwards are restricted RFAs, leaving plenty of negotiating power and leverage for Francis. Nathan Gerbe and Andrei Loktionov both had strong campaigns, but their 5'5" and 5'10" frames are both notable weaknesses. Jiri Tlusty's role-defining inconsistency may not fit well with Francis' vision, either.
Moreover, after years of spotty collections, the 2014 free-agent market could be a plentiful one. Multi-faceted grinders like Steve Ott, Brian Boyle, Dustin Penner and Daniel Winnik could help Francis make Carolina's future checking lines far more intimidating and formidable.
Most important, though, will be the establishment of an identity and standard composition for the struggling Hurricanes offense—no matter what that identity happens to be.
Reinspiring a Frustrated Fanbase
Francis' strongest and most influential pressure this summer will not arise from an unreliable cast of fellow managers and coaches, a micromanaging owner, a sticky and restrictive financial situation or a frustrated cast of players.
No, it will reverberate out of a fanbase tired of mediocrity and longing, sometimes nostalgically and sometimes angrily, for success.
Or, for starters, even just a single playoff game.
The clock of Carolina's postseason drought, which hit 1,802 days (almost five calendar years) Friday and will easily surpass 2,000 before it has another opportunity to be broken, is most certainly ticking at a faster rate than ever.
Ticket prices are rising. Demand is falling. Tensions are escalating out of control.
Raleigh demands a team deserving of the support it receives from a small, Southern market; Karmanos requests "more patience".
It's up to Francis to solve the conflict, to deliver refreshing changes on and off the ice and to get the 'Canes back to game No. 83 and beyond, starting the snowball effect which resolves attendance and financial concerns simultaneously.
2014 is perhaps the most decisive offseason the Carolina Hurricanes have ever faced.
And they'll need to trust a general manager with less than a week of job experience to guide the franchise through it efficiently and effectively.