NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, Thomas Dundon, new Hurricanes majority owner, center, and Canes' general manager Ron Francis laugh. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, Thomas Dundon, new Hurricanes majority owner, center, and Canes' general manager Ron Francis laugh. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

Personality as much as performance behind Canes' Francis decision

By Luke DeCock


March 07, 2018 10:56 PM

The decision to remove Ron Francis as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes was as much about personality as it was performance. Given the differences in approach between Francis and new owner Thomas Dundon, this was probably inevitable once Dundon bought the team, barring a breakthrough second half.

That hasn't happened, of course. The Hurricanes have been unable to make up any ground in the wild-card race and the Francis-directed rebuild appears to have stalled at some interim point short of playoff-level competitiveness. Big changes are needed to put this team over the top, and Dundon felt more comfortable bringing in someone else to make them.

That's Dundon's style: bold moves and sweeping changes. He's going to invest heavily in analytics on both the hockey and business sides, looking for any advantage to press. Patience has not been a hallmark of his business history.

That isn't Francis' style: The lack of a significant player-for-player trade in his entire four-season tenure is an indication of that. He deserves a ton of credit for fixing the salary-cap mess Jim Rutherford left behind and patiently rebuilding the foundation of the franchise with prospects and draft picks, and the franchise appears to have two Francis-drafted stars in Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas.

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But when the time came last summer to load up and take the next step, Francis kept his draft picks and largely stood pat. Seen in the most cynical light, he added a backup goalie, a pair of fourth-line forwards, a third-pairing defenseman and Justin Williams. Why is anyone surprised this team didn't make a major leap forward?

The goaltender was the biggest whiff. Scott Darling hasn't been able to handle the pressure of being an NHL No. 1 and Francis locked him in by giving him a four-year contract. (That isn't the worst Francis contract; the six-year, $24 million extension he gave the mediocre Victor Rask tops that list.) Francis struck out with Eddie Lack and Darling; who can blame Dundon for not trusting him to try again in net?

In the hours after the move, there was some grumbling from old-school hockey people around the league about Dundon wanting to be hands-on in the Mark Cuban model, and that's true, to an extent. It's Dundon's new toy and he's going to want to push all the buttons. But at the same time, he needs a general manager who's on his wavelength and that clearly wasn't Francis – whereas head coach Bill Peters, even more a target of fan frustration than Francis, appears to be simpatico with Dundon.

It's notable that while this is unquestionably a demotion -- the new GM will report directly to Dundon -- the new owner thought enough of Francis to keep him around in this new president of hockey operations role. It may actually be a better fit for Francis, if he oversees scouting and development, assuming he sticks around and this isn't glorified gardening leave.

But there's no doubt about it: Francis wasn't Dundon's kind of guy, and the new owner wants a GM who is his kind of guy.

Because Dundon bought the team in midseason, there hasn't been a natural time to make changes. With the trade deadline passed and the team headed nowhere, Dundon apparently didn't see any reason to wait around.

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