Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ prospective new owner will have to address on-ice issues, and quickly

Thomas Dundon has an agreement in place to purchase the Carolina Hurricanes.
Thomas Dundon has an agreement in place to purchase the Carolina Hurricanes. AP

Welcome to the party, Thomas Dundon.

On the day their long for-sale nightmare finally ended, the Carolina Hurricanes promptly demonstrated how little has changed on the ice, taking a 3-0 first-period lead at the San Jose Sharks late Thursday night only to lose 5-4 in overtime.

The optimism generated by the news that Peter Karmanos would sell a majority interest in the team to Dundon was compounded by the Hurricanes' start last night – including a rare Victor Rask goal – only to be crushed, for the umpteenth time, by a blown lead and a demoralizing loss.

The Hurricanes are once again in last place in the Metropolitan Division, albeit with a few games in hand, and Thanksgiving came and went with the Hurricanes out of the playoff picture. It's extraordinarily difficult and unusual to make significant moves in the standings after that, no matter how hot a team may get, thanks to the NHL's overtime loser point, and the Hurricanes are stuck at the bottom.

The situation cried out for some kind of a change a month ago, but general manager Ron Francis did nothing, and Dundon's agreement to purchase the team certainly calls for a reassessment of how the team has been managed. Francis deserves credit for his patience sticking to his long-term plan while working under some of the league's most severe financial constraints, but there's more to the job than that. It's about making tough decisions, and Francis has yet to make one.

The micro issues with the Hurricanes remain on Bill Peters, a good coach who the players appeared to tune out long ago and who continues to fail to get the most out of this admittedly underpowered roster. This is on him as much as Francis: The ex-Blackhawks acquired this summer – Scott Darling, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk – have Peters' fingerprints all over them. The one new player who didn't have Peters' obvious seal of approval, Justin Williams, was snubbed by Peters when he instituted the ridiculous co-captaincy, which was clearly a bad idea at the time and only looks worse now. (Jordan Staal has lived up to the role, but is there a bigger underachiever on the roster than Justin Faulk? Don’t answer that: There’s a lot of competition.)

But Peters isn't alone. Francis is increasingly going to have to answer for the macro issues with this team, which despite the unquestioned offseason improvement remains headed for a ninth straight early summer. In three-plus years in charge, Francis has yet to make a real player-for-player trade. In his tenure, he's done nothing a vaguely competent video game AI wouldn't do.

He kept Eric Staal until his contract wound down, kept Cam Ward even beyond that, and has re-signed young players to massive contract extensions to keep them with the franchise without using the leverage the labor agreement gives him. The extensions for Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were no-brainers, but Rask hasn't exactly made him look smart. He whiffed on one goaltending solution (Eddie Lack) and while Darling may yet turn out to be a reliable No. 1 down the road, his less-than-smooth adjustment to that role has held the Hurricanes back this season.

Francis has drafted appropriate players with the Hurricanes' first-round picks, but the players taken with the next few picks have consistently been better. It's almost always unfair to second-guess draft picks, but this evidence of missed opportunities speaks for itself: William Nylander taken one pick after Haydn Fleury, Zach Werenski taken three picks after Noah Hanifin, Charlie McAvoy one pick after Jake Bean. And Francis kept this year's draft pick instead of trading it for immediate help.

Yes, it is difficult to make trades, as Francis says over and over. And he's right: Being a general manager is hard. That's why it's not a job fans (or the media) can do, even if they think they can. But the good GMs find a way. Three teams traded first-round picks for players on draft day. Nineteen NHL teams have made a significant trade since the end of last season, including such hard-to-make deals as the Matt Duchene three-way swap. Francis' biggest trade “win” so far is sloughing off Lack and Ryan Murphy on Calgary – commendable, to be sure, but hardly a franchise-changer.

Francis has done some good work as general manager and laid a solid foundation despite one of the league's smallest payrolls while embracing analytics and expanding the scouting staff. He deserves credit for all of that, and by no means should his job be in danger, but he has to do better. Francis doesn't have to be Jim Rutherford, who never saw a trade he wouldn't make, but he's going to have to start taking some risks at some point.

For this franchise especially, the path of least resistance will never lead to the playoffs.

Assuming this milestone in the sale process leads to better results than the Hurricanes' 3-0 lead Thursday night, Dundon should soon have the chance to ask Francis and Peters some tough questions. The sooner those questions are asked, the better.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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