Ron Francis had a Hall of Fame playing career in the National Hockey League, twice winning the Stanley Cup.
But can he do it as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes?
“The job has become more complex, no question, to when I came in,” said Jim Rutherford, who stepped down last week after 20 years as the Canes’ GM.
Francis isn’t the only NHL general manager with a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning won three Stanley Cup rings with the Detroit Red Wings.
There are other general managers who had distinguished playing careers, such as Bob Murray of the Anaheim Ducks and Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks.
But take a look at the teams that have won Stanley Cups in the 2000s. More and more, Cup-winning general managers are well-educated businessmen who played their hockey at the college level or in the minor leagues, if at all.
Dean Lombardi, president and general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, has a law degree from Tulane. Peter Chiarelli of the Boston Bruins played for Harvard and went to law school at the University of Ottawa.
Stan Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins are the sons of Hall of Fame coaches – Scotty Bowman and the late Fred Shero. Bowman, 40, is a Notre Dame graduate, earning degrees in finance and computer applications. Shero, 51, went to St. Lawrence University and was drafted by the Kings but never played in the NHL.
Since 1999, only one team won the Stanley Cup whose GM played more than four games in the NHL – the Canes. Rutherford, a former goalie, played parts of 13 seasons before becoming a general manager in 1994.
“It’s a big job,” Rutherford said. “When you’re working within a (salary) cap system, even with a budget team, it’s a big job. But Ronnie (Francis) is well-prepared for it.”
A year after retiring as a player in the fall of 2005, Francis began working in the Canes’ front office. He was director of hockey operations, served as associate head coach and was vice president of hockey operations before being named executive vice president and general manager on Monday.
“I think because of his work ethic, the roles he played on the team in management and the experience he has gained, he will do a terrific job,” said Rick Curran, a longtime player agent who represents several Canes including Eric and Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward. “Former players like Ron may not have a formal business education but they’re astute people who were leaders on their hockey clubs, had success in their careers and recognize where that success came from.
“They certainly would not be a general manager if they did not have good business acumen and a good education of the business side. And Ron Francis learned from one of the best in the business in Jim Rutherford.”
It has been some education, Francis said.
“I remember when I started upstairs, Jim said, ‘There’s always something happening every day and you never know what it’s going to be,’” Francis said. “That’s been an accurate statement. I don’t know if you’re ever ready for this job. One thing I’ve learned is there are no easy decisions. There are a lot of tough decisions.”
Francis, 51, was a smart, fast-thinking center in a career that began with the Hartford Whalers. He won two Cups with the Penguins and then wound up with the Hurricanes in 1998. His instincts on the ice were good and he played with a game-to-game focus and intensity he wants to see from his team.
Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. noted he recently was at a charity golf tournament with Francis and ticked off Francis’ hockey accomplishments. He said he paused when he read Francis was fourth in NHL career points behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe.
“I said, ‘Geez, Ron, I didn’t know you were that good,’” Karmanos said. “But he was. And it’s that kind of unassuming leadership and will to win that will make him an outstanding general manager. You’ll be able to measure his success by the way the team plays on the ice.”
Asked how he defines success, Karmanos smiled and said, “If he wins the Stanley Cup right off the bat, he’s very successful. And if he doesn’t, he’s not.”
That was said in jest but the truth is general managers are measured by their ability to put together teams, not past glory as individuals on the ice.
Bob Gainey played on five Stanley Cup winners with the Montreal Canadiens, going into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1999, he was general manager of the Dallas Stars when they were Cup champions.
But the Blackhawks’ Bowman is a better example of the latter-day general manager. Joining the team in 2001 as special assistant to general manager Mike Smith, he handled budgets, set up player evaluation programs, worked his way up and was named GM in 2009.
Bowman makes extensive use of advanced statistics, but not just the Corsi or Fenwick hockey analytics so fashionable among hockey people. The Blackhawks have their own evaluation system and as Bowman told the Chicago Sun-Times, “There’s an art to it.”
Whatever the method, it has worked. The Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010. Bowman reshaped the team because of salary-cap issues and it won again in 2013.
The Hurricanes use hockey analytics in making decisions, Rutherford said, as most NHL teams do. But Francis will again have to use his on-the-job training, his many hockey contacts and his instincts in the weeks and months ahead.
Francis needs to decide whether to shake up the coaching staff. He also must choose which players to retain. Forward Manny Malhotra and defenseman Ron Hainsey will be unrestricted free agents on July 1. Forward Jiri Tlusty is a restricted free agent.
“I think when you have a general manager who was a former player, they have a good feel for what you’re trying to accomplish on the behalf of your player,” said Curran, whose firm represents Tlusty and Malhotra.
There could be trades to consider. The 2014 NHL Entry Draft requires preparation. There’s rookie camp. And always the budget.
“There’s always a million things going through your head as a manager,” Rutherford said.
Early this past season, Ward was injured during a road game against the Minnesota Wild, just 11 days after goalie Anton Khudobin was lost to an ankle injury. Skinner also left the game with an injury. Francis soon was seen with cell phones stuck in each ear, scrambling to make personnel moves.
But while the job is complex and things can be hectic at times, Francis appears to have a simple creed as general manager.
“I want players who put the logo on the front of the jersey ahead of the name on the back,” he said.
That’s always a good starting point.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip