Carolina Hurricanes

Hurricanes’ general manager Ron Francis talks Dundon, Darling, playoff chances

Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis may have aged a bit in the final minute of overtime Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the Canes’ Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal couldn’t convert quality scoring chances and the Flyers won with 3.1 seconds left.

“My days of being able to get out there and help are long gone,” Francis said. “You feel for the players because you know how much they want this and know how hard they’re working. You feel for them because they want it so bad. It’s frustrating for all of us.”

The overtime loss dropped the Canes to 24-21-9 for the season, one point out of playoff position in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. On Wednesday, Francis answered these questions from The News & Observer’s Chip Alexander.

Q: Fifty-four games into the season, how would you assess the team’s play?

A: “I think it’s been inconsistent. We’ve had stretches where we looked good and played well. We’ve had stretches where we haven’t looked as good as I’d like to see us. Is some of our trouble based schedule or personnel or luck of whatever? The fact of the matter is we’re still in the (playoff) hunt with 28 games left.”

Q: What needs to change?

A: “I think it’s just getting some traction. Last night I know we lost the (Philadelphia) game but I thought our effort was better and our compete was better. If we get better on a consistent basis I think we’ve shown over the course of the year we can play with anybody and beat anybody. That’s the mentality and effort we need on a consistent basis.”

Q: You brought in Scott Darling to be the No. 1 goalie. What has held him back, caused him to struggle?

A: “There’s multiple factors. I thought early in the season he was playing well and I didn’t think we were playing necessarily well in front of him. We were giving up breakaways and backdoor tap-ins. That’s not on the goaltender but on us in front of him.

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The Canes' Scott Darling (33) skates off the ice at the end of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena on Feb. 2, 2018. The Wings beat the Canes 4-1. Chris Seward

“I think he then went through a stretch where he was struggling and I think he’d admit that, too. I think lately he has been much better. You look at his last few games, the Washington game we don’t win without him. The game against Calgary I didn’t think we were very good in front of him. The Vegas start was tough for us. Vegas had been playing all week and was here waiting for us. Two of the three probably were not his fault. We need to be better in front of him but I think his game is turning around. Hopefully he gets a win under his belt and gets some confidence.

Q: Do you believe you miscalculated on how good he is?

A: “Not at this point, no. He’s been a better goaltender in the past than he has been this year. Some of that is the adjustment to being No. 1, some of that is adjustment to a new system, some of it is the ups and downs of the season. I think he’s tracking back in the right direction.”

Q: Is this team, as currently constructed, a playoff-caliber team or do personnel changes need to be made?

A: “I think we’re always looking to make changes if we feel it makes the team better. We’re in the (playoff) mix and it’s not an easy league. Every night is an adventure. I love the fact our fan base is passionate again and it’s an emotional rollercoaster this time of year. When you win everybody loves it and when you lose everybody hates it. For me, it’s exciting we’re back in that discussion. We haven’t been in a while and here we are.

“I believe in the guys in the room and their ability to go out there and perform. That doesn’t mean if there is something out there that makes us better we won’t explore it.”

Q: Would calling up a player or two from the Charlotte Checkers help make you better?

A: “We look at all options and that’s certainly one of them. Contrary to what people may believe, (coach) Bill (Peters) and I and the management team do have a lot of discussions. We’re on the same page in what we’re trying to accomplish. In our mind it’s putting the best team on the ice we believe can win that night.

“We’ve got a lot of good prospects in Charlotte, there’s no question. Having them play 18 or 20 minutes a game there versus being up here and playing six minutes and being out of the game at the end isn’t going to help us. It’s getting these guys to the point where when they come up here they’re in the top six, top nine guys. It’s something we talk about and evaluate when we go game to game and try to figure out which buttons need to be pushed to make us more successful.”

Q: You went into the season believing your defensive corps would be a strength of the team. Has it been?

A: “I still think they’re a real good group of six defensemen. I think they’re very young in the process, as well. But, yeah, I still think they’re six good defensemen, that the six we put in there are good.”

Q: Jeff Skinner’s scoring has dried up the past 20 games. What’s been the problem?

A: “He’s been certainly snakebit. It’s not for lack of opportunity or lack of chances. The game coming out of the (NHL bye week) in Detroit he probably could have scored five. He had seven or eight great chances and nothing was going in for him.

The Canes' Jeff Skinner (53) has his shot stopped by the Flyers' Claude Giroux (28) and the Flyers goalie Brian Elliott (37) during the overtime period at PNC Arena on Feb. 6, 2018. The Flyers beat the Canes 2-1 in overtime. Chris Seward

“It’s not like he’s not getting the opportunities, though his shooting percentage ... is not his career norm. I tend to worry about guys when they’re not getting opportunities. I keep saying at some point it’s going to turn around for him. He scored 37 last year. Hopefully one or two go in for him and scorers get hot, right?”

Q: Now that some time has passed, what are you impressions of new team owner Tom Dundon?

A: “He’s passionate. He’s energetic. He wants everything, from on the ice to off the ice, to make it first class and something our fans are proud to be associated with.”

Q: How involved is he in the hockey operations side?

A: “I think he’s been involved in everything. I think he’s a kind of guy who wants to try and learn and understand as much as he can, and have a say in things he thinks might make us better. I think that’s great. I think discussion is always valuable.”

Q: Dundon has said everybody’s job performance is being evaluated. Does that include the general manager’s job performance?

A: “If he said everybody, it’s everybody.”

Q: Dundon stresses the value of analytics. What do the analytics indicate about the team?

A: “You’re probably tired of me saying it, but it’s that the shooting percentage should change. We’re struggling to score, no question, and a couple of guys in particular. But they’re getting the opportunities, so at some point I think it will change and some pucks go in. And hopefully that gets them to relax and away we go.”

Q: Has it been a case of nerves?

A: “I don’t know if it’s nerves. If you look at the game last night the first 40 minutes I thought were good hockey. The last 20 we’d like to generate more (than two shots). We get to the overtime and we’re outshooting them before their second shot goes on. I think we’ve lost six games in overtime and we’ve outshot teams almost 2 1-2 to one and outchanced them dramatically. We’ve got to find a way to bear down on those chances and put ‘em away when we have the opportunity.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

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