“I am my own man.”
Five words from Ron Francis, and perhaps the most important ones he uttered at his introductory press conference as the Carolina Hurricanes’ new executive vice president and general manager on Monday.
It’s perhaps his toughest sell to the fans: That promoting from within won’t simply be a continuation of Jim Rutherford’s two decades of service with the franchise.
Francis was quick to defend his predecessor’s track record – two Stanley Cup Finals appearances, the lone Cup win in 2006. Of course, the teams Rutherford build since the Cup victory missed the playoffs in all but one season, their conference final loss in 2009.
How can Francis be his own man when he’s been part of the braintrust since Nov. 2006, and hence part of that demise for the Hurricanes as a playoff contender?
He’s claiming that the reset button has been pressed.
“I look at this as a fresh start,” he said. “I have a good understanding of what we have, and what we need.”
What they have: 10 players signed through 2016, already having $47.6 million on the books for two seasons from now. That includes an astounding $27.55 million against the cap for four players: Eric Staal, Alex Semin, Jordan Staal and Cam Ward.
If Francis is his own man, he’ll take a sledge hammer to the core of a non-playoff team. Cam Ward should be the first name on that chopping block – there’s zero need to have a $6.3 million cap hit tied up in a goalie that’s not among the NHL’s elite, with Anton Khudobin ready and other goalies that would cost considerably less than Ward available.
Do Eric or Jordan Staal get the hammer, too? Trading the franchise’s star captain would be a game-changer, and maybe a little too bold for a first-year GM. Trading his brother would be easier, but Jordan Staal had a sneakily good season for the Hurricanes, and was their second-best puck possession forward.
(They both also have no-trade clauses thanks to Mr. Rutherford.)
So what will Francis do? He needs to do something. Owner Peter Karmanos, Jr. admitted that “our season-ticket renewals right now aren’t good, and I don’t blame anybody because we’ve missed the playoffs for five years, but when we do go back on the ice next year, we need that fan support.”
The quickest, least bloody fix would be to fire Kirk Muller, and turfing a coach is a long-standing tradition for new GMs. Francis said he hasn’t made that call yet.
“I haven’t at this point. It’s a decision that needs some due process,” he said.
(Wonder if Ronnie is as fond of recycling as Jimmy was. Peter Laviolette gotta eat …)
Obviously the time had come for a change. A tap of the stick to Jim Rutherford, who really did make the most of what he was given in Carolina. Luck wasn’t always on his side, and sometimes his blind loyalty to the players wearing the swirling toilet on their chests was to his detriment, but Rutherford was a class act. “Twenty years was a long time for me. I’ve thought about this for a few years. The time is right now,” he said.
Said Karmanos in a statement on Rutherford, who remains as a president-in-name-only gig:
“Based on Jim’s decision to step down as GM, now is a good time to go in a new direction,” said Karmanos.
“Ron has dedicated himself to learning all aspects of running a hockey team in the past eight years, working in player development, on the coaching staff and in hockey operations. He has proven that he has the work ethic and passion to get the Hurricanes back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I am happy that Jim will retain a role with our team, and I thank him for his 20 years as our general manager. He leaves quite a legacy with our organization, bringing the team three divisional championships, two conference titles and the Stanley Cup.”
But what’s his real legacy? He was that baseball slugger that either hit one out of the park or whiffed. Sixteen years in Raleigh. Two conference titles, one Stanley Cup and 11 seasons without a playoff berth – playing in the Southeast Division, no less.
“I don’t want to build a team that gets into the playoffs for one year,” said Francis .
Those were the second-most important words he uttered on Monday.