RALEIGH, N.C. -- With the announcement Monday that Hall of Famer Ron Francis is taking over as executive vice president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, the franchise made its most noteworthy front-office shift since arriving in North Carolina in 1997. What happens next will begin playing out over the summer.
Francis replaces Jim Rutherford, whose 20-year tenure as general manager included winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, with Francis serving as Hurricanes captain. Rutherford will remain with the team as president in an advisory role, representing the franchise at NHL functions such as the Board of Governors meetings.
Francis has worked in a variety of roles with the Hurricanes since his retirement as a player in 2004, including two-plus seasons as associate coach. He has spent the past three years as director of hockey operations. He expressed a clear vision for the type of player he wants on the Hurricanes roster.
"You have to be able to skate and be a fast team," Francis said. "I always like players who are smart and skilled. I always like players who love to compete. I'd be lying if I didn't say, all things being equal, that I didn't prefer a bigger player."
Carolina has missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs five seasons in a row and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference in consecutive years, leading to speculation coach Kirk Muller's job could be in jeopardy after leading the team for parts of three seasons.
Team owner Peter Karmanos, who attended the press conference, gave Muller a late-season vote of support during a Hurricanes TV broadcast, but he backtracked a bit on Monday.
"I think he's come a long way as a coach, but that's not my call," Karmanos said. "It doesn't matter what my perspective is."
Francis indicated he will make further assessments before deciding Muller's fate.
"My relationship with all the guys on the staff is good," Francis said. "I think they're all great people. What I need to do is take some time to dig deeper into things and peel some layers back and be comfortable in my decision going forward."
Though Francis called the past five seasons "frustrating," Karmanos held to his position that the Hurricanes' fortunes are better than they appear. When asked about the team's current makeup, he cut off a reporter and offered a firm assessment.
"This team is good enough to win the whole damn thing, OK?" he said. "We had both of our goalies (Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin) out for (many) games. We were just a few points away from making the playoffs."
Karmanos suggested the current roster has a strong foundation.
"When you sit down on paper, (the team) is great," he said. "Our goal is to put a competitive team on the ice. Part of that is winning. I think we have the best possible situation at this point in time for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in five years. Ronnie has a great opportunity to do something special. Let him take the steps he needs to take to get that done."
Francis already has a sense of what that will entail.
"I've got a lot of ideas on our lineup and maybe where we need to change it," said Francis, who scored 549 career goals and ranks second in NHL history in assists (1,249), third in games (1,731) and fourth in points (1,798). "I'll start working on that fairly quick, then we will try to put those pieces in place."
After the midseason trades of veterans Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu, rumors began to circulate that other Carolina mainstays could be in play, including captain Eric Staal and Ward. Combined with the emergence of young players including forward Jeff Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk, there is a sense the Hurricanes may look for more leadership from players who are just reaching their prime.
"I think we have a good nucleus of young players and they can take a step forward as well," Francis said. "When you don't make the playoffs for five years, you have to evaluate everything."
For his part, Rutherford was at peace with stepping away from the general manager's role. Rutherford told the media Monday afternoon that he began contemplating stepping down in January and was candid about the toll it has taken on him. Rutherford oversaw the franchise's move from Hartford, two seasons played in Greensboro, N.C., an NHL Draft and an All-Star Game. But he said the many personal decisions had a cumulative effect.
"I didn't ever take it lightly when I traded a player," he said. "I've never traded a player I've disliked or for personal reasons. Some trades you make for budgetary reasons. And running the business, you sometimes have to move employees out. All those things build up over a period of time. Those are things that bother me. When you've done it as long as I have, being with one organization wears you down."
Though the Hurricanes have not enjoyed sustained playoff success, their two runs to the Stanley Cup Final were instrumental in establishing the franchise in the Raleigh market. Defeating the Edmonton Oilers to win the Cup in 2006 gives Rutherford's tenure a validation nothing else can.
"When you reach the ultimate goal, you know you didn't have to stay in longer to do it," Rutherford said. "My preference in stepping down would have been coming off a good year, and not an off year. But it was still time."
Helping in the transition will be Mike Vellucci, the longtime coach and general manager of the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers. He joins the organization as the assistant GM and director of hockey operations. Brian Tatum also comes aboard to serve as assistant GM.
Though Francis will have the final say on personnel decisions, he said he expects to seek Rutherford's opinions after learning the ropes from him for nine seasons in the front office. At the same time, he wants to put his own stamp on the team.
"I am my own man," Francis said. "What's going to guide me is doing what's best for the franchise long term. The fans are frustrated, I'm frustrated. We're going to take a look at everything closely and make some decisions that will be best for the franchise going forward."
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