On a summer day 16 years ago, before the arena where the Carolina Hurricanes now play was even built, Jim Rutherford and Ron Francis sat next to each other at a press conference to announce perhaps the best move in Rutherford’s 20-year tenure as general manager: The return of Francis as a free agent in 1998.
There they were again Monday, on either side of Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, as the chain of events set in motion back then came to complete fruition.
The Hartford Whalers traded Francis away in one of the worst deals in hockey history, long before Karmanos and Rutherford bought the team and moved it to Raleigh. Bringing Francis back as a free agent paved the way for all the success the franchise would have in Raleigh. And now Rutherford steps aside to let Francis assume control of a franchise that has missed the playoffs in five straight seasons, and seven of eight since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
“I am my own man,” Francis said, and of that there should be no doubt. As a player, as a captain, Francis did things his way. Others fell in line behind him. The same should be true in the front office now that he is free to set his own direction. His success will be determined by the important decisions he has to make, both now and far down the road. They are neither easy nor obvious.
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In the short term, he has to make a decision whether to retain coach Kirk Muller, who watched Monday from the back of the room, as well as what to do about Cam Ward, Alexander Semin and, to a lesser extent, the two Staal brothers. Francis’ experience as a player may be telling here, especially in dealing with Ward, the most pressing issue.
Unable to agree on a new contract, Francis was the victim of a smear campaign in Hartford that laid the ground for a lopsided trade that helped win two Stanley Cups for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Later, he accepted a late-season trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs to close out his final NHL season in the playoffs in 2004. He knows how difficult it can be to cut ties with an iconic player.
Beyond this summer, Francis needs to articulate a vision for the franchise that will inform every aspect of the team, from drafting and scouting to coaching and contracts. The consistently successful teams in the salary-cap era have a plan starting at the draft table and ending on the ice. The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks don’t all pursue the same players. They each pursue players who fit their unique vision and personality.
The Hurricanes have lacked long-range vision in the draft while veering from quick fix to quick fix at the NHL level in a well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempt to break the playoff drought.
Can anyone honestly say, right now, what kind of team the Hurricanes, as currently constructed, are supposed to be? It’s up to Francis to ask that question. And answer it.
Monday, he vaguely tried to order every topping on the pizza: speed, skill, size, character, hockey sense. But pinned down afterward, he said he wanted players with real competitive drive – some big, some fast, some skilled, but all sharing the same burning desire that made Francis successful. If that’s the baseline, it’s a start.
Sixteen years after Francis returned to the franchise, the Hurricanes have come full circle. They are not in the same desperate situation they were back then, but they are equally in need of new direction. It’s up to Francis to provide it.