A year ago, Ron Francis was a few months into his new job as Carolina Hurricanes general manager, about to hire a new coach but reluctant to reshape the team or make big roster changes.
Francis named Bill Peters coach, but the Canes made no major offseason trades and few free-agent signings. They also missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for a sixth straight season.
While keeping things close to the vest, Francis now says the team could have a new look next season, indicating he could be taking a new, bolder approach.
“It’s tough to say, but I am open to discussing changes and making changes,” he said during an interview this week. “When you finish like we did this season, and there are some reasons the season went the way it did, I’m open to listening to suggestions made that I believe can make this team better.”
It could be addition comes through subtraction. Francis said the Canes have not made a decision on a contract buyout of forward Alexander Semin but could decide to use one.
Semin, coming off an unproductive season, has three years remaining on a contract that pays him $7 million a year. A buyout would be expensive – $14 million, paid out over six years – but would free up salary and provide another roster spot.
Semin could also figure in various trade scenarios, even if Carolina has to retain part of his salary.
Asked about plans for Semin, Francis said, “It’s too early to say. We’re looking at all the options. Is it best to keep him here or should we do something else? At the right time we’ll do what’s best for our organization.”
That doesn’t sound like a general manager expecting to see a player back in his team’s lineup, but Semin did score 22 goals in 65 games during the 2013-14 season. He’s 31, but he could have a bounce-back season if healthy and motivated.
Moving ahead without forward Eric Staal or goalie Cam Ward would be bigger loses. Both are entering the final years of their contracts, and Francis has met with Rick Curran, the agent who represents both players for the Orr Hockey Group, to discuss possible extensions.
Staal, the team captain, will be paid $9.5 million next season. Ward, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2006 when the Canes won the Cup, will have a $6.8 million salary.
“Our discussions have been pretty general to this point,” Francis said. “It’s still pretty early in the process. In my opinion, I do think they want to be a part of turning this organization around and get it back to where it was. They’ve expressed an interest in doing that.”
But at what price, and for how many years?
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” Francis said.
Staal and Ward have factored into trade scuttlebutt, but both have no-trade clauses in their contracts. As Francis said, “They have a lot of say in the matter.”
Francis and his management team have been preparing for the NHL Draft, which will be held next week in Sunrise, Fla. The Canes have the No. 5 overall selection and 10 draft picks in all, which could make for a busy two days.
Free agency begins a few days later, although Francis wasn’t sure how active the Canes would be. There’s a glaring need on the blue line, where the Canes must replace defensemen Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason, both traded late last season. Francis mentioned possible trades and said the Canes might have interest in players made available by other teams with salary-cap concerns.
The Hurricanes on Monday signed forward Derek Ryan from Orebro of the Swedish Hockey League. Ryan, who was named the league’s MVP last season, was given a one-year, two-way contract. He will be given a chance to win a roster spot in training camp, Francis said.
If he doesn’t make the roster in Raleigh, Ryan will be sent to the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Checkers coach Jeff Daniels did not have his contract renewed after last season, and Francis said there was no rush to make a new hire.
“There’s just a lot going on, but it’s that time of year,” Francis said.