The NHL’s trade deadline is a week away, falling on a leap-year Monday, and the next seven days will have a lot to say about Ron Francis’ tenure as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Is Francis going to tinker and fine tune, as his predecessor would have done? Or is he going to attempt a massive remaking of the team, truly putting his stamp on the Hurricanes?
There’s an implication there that the latter is somehow more worthy than the former, but that isn’t the case. Both strategies have their merits. It’s really what the path Francis chooses to pursue says about him that matters.
After Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the odds are now stacked firmly against the Hurricanes making the playoffs. In that game, the Hurricanes once again dominated possession at even strength but failed to convert their superiority in scoring chances into goals, and they were victimized by a short-side goal allowed by Cam Ward – two of the persistent faults that have held this team back despite its progress since December.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Hurricanes knew what it would take to compete, and 4-3-2 was never going to cut it. There’s still a chance they could get hot and make the playoffs, but from the perspective of a pragmatic GM, they’re out of time, and for players with no-trade clauses like Ward and Eric Staal, there’s that much less reason to block a deal.
So what does Francis do? The only unacceptable answer is nothing.
At the least, the four marketable impending free agents should depart: Staal, Ward, Kris Versteeg, John-Michael Liles. It’s less a question of Francis’ philosophy than his salesmanship whether he can generate a market for lesser impending free agents such as Riley Nash or Chris Terry. Anything players of that ilk might bring would be a bonus, if Francis can find buyers.
The real challenge is whether Francis can get creative and craft a Jeff Skinner or Jordan Staal deal – neither will ever be more marketable, the way they’re playing – that clears their contracts off the books and would really allow Francis to make drastic changes. Or, even better, also bring in impact players who can help the Hurricanes now and in the future.
This is where Francis’ willingness to retain salary last season in the deal that sent Jay Harrison to the Winnipeg Jets comes back to bite him; teams can only retain salary on three contracts, and the Hurricanes have already done so with Harrison and Tuomo Ruutu. The market for Staal and Ward would be considerably broader, and the return higher, if the Hurricanes could retain salary on both contracts to help money-stressed contenders shoehorn them under the salary cap.
What the Hurricanes can do in lieu of retaining salary is take on bad contracts from other teams. If Staal and Ward aren’t re-signed, the Hurricanes will have some work to do to get to the salary-cap floor next season. So whatever the Chicago Blackhawks might offer for Versteeg, the Hurricanes could up the ante by being willing to take on Bryan Bickell’s $4 million contract, currently buried in the minors, just as one potential example.
Francis has yet to make a really earthshaking trade in his time as general manager, as savvy as it was to take advantage of Chicago’s cap issues to land Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom. His biggest move remains the buyout of Alexander Semin. This is without question the most important week of Francis’ tenure.
The Hurricanes had a chance to show what they can do, and never quite got there. Now, closing in on two years in charge, Francis has his best chance yet to show what he can do.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock