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Catching Up with Ron Francis

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
Michael Smith

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Nearly nine months ago, Ron Francis was introduced as general manager for the Carolina Hurricanes. In his first season, he has presided over a team that is 16-25-5 at the NHL All-Star break. We caught up with Francis to discuss his tenure thus far and look at what lies ahead. What has been the most surprising aspect or the biggest thing you’ve learned in your first nine months as general manager?

Francis: You understand that you have to deal with a lot of different things. Early in my management career, Jim Rutherford probably put it best. He said, “There’s always something, and you never know what it’s going to be.” That goes hand-in-hand with this job. You never know what’s coming next. What has been the biggest “something” to deal with thus far?

Francis: You look at things in the summer and put things in place. We felt we had a team that could probably surprise where people had us pegged to start the season, but stuff happens. We had a lot of things happen early in the season, and unfortunately we didn’t dress the lineup we thought we would have at the start of the season until game 41. That happens some years, and unfortunately for us, it happened this year. With that in mind, how important is the assessment of the team moving forward now that there are healthy pieces in place?

Francis: You learn something every day, whether you watch the team in practices or in games. We’ve said this in years past: when you have injuries, it moves guys into roles that they’re not best suited for. Getting healthy in game 41 allowed us to structure guys in the roles that we saw them being in at the start of the year.

A good example of that: people may say earlier in the year that our fourth line wasn’t a great line, but we had kind of envisioned the potential of Malone, McClement and Dwyer as being that fourth line. They had one exhibition game and looked really good together, and since then we’ve had to move guys all over the place. But they’ve been together now for a little bit, and not only are they playing well but they’re producing offense for us, which is a bonus in that role. The penalty killing with McClement and Dwyer has been extremely good.

Certainly having Jordan back and the team healthy gives you a lot of ability to look at guys in roles you think they can be in. It gives the coaching staff the ability to say, “Hey, if you’re not working as hard as you need to work, then I’ve got somebody sitting on the sideline that wants that opportunity to take your job.” Guys that are in the lineup don’t want to lose their job, and guys that are out of the lineup want that chance when they get in there to make sure they keep it. With Jordan Staal out and the other rash of injuries early in the season, a number of prospects from Charlotte got a shot they might not otherwise have had this season. Is that beneficial from an evaluation standpoint?

Francis: With all due respect to our kids, I’d much rather have our guys in and healthy. I think in the perfect scenario, your kids are in Charlotte playing and developing. That’s what you want to happen there. It did give us a chance to look at some of those guys, though.

We had Victor Rask penciled in as the No. 1 guy in Charlotte. He was going to play power play, penalty kill and all kinds of minutes. That would be the next step in his progression. The injury to Jordan Staal opened up an opportunity for him, but honestly, he obviously put the time and effort in this summer because he came back in great shape, and he picked up that half a step that we talked to him about. He’s been real good for us all season long.

There are some opportunities for young guys to come in and show what they can do and for us to get a look at them, but at the end of the day, you want to be healthy if you can. As the trade deadline approaches, what is most important to you as you consider various personnel decisions?

Francis: I think we’re approaching it at a couple different levels. The biggest complaint I heard in the summertime was the frustration with the lack of effort and compete on a daily basis. We made the commitment that that was going to be one of our top priorities. We’ve held to that in trying to maintain and keep guys accountable.

I hate losing. I know Bill Peters hates losing. I hope like hell my players hate losing. You want guys that want to come to the rink every day. You want guys that want to compete, learn and make themselves better every day. You want guys to go out there and play hard every night. That’s the one thing we’re going to work on maintaining.

On the flip side, we’ll get a closer look at our team and where guys slot and where we think we have to strengthen our team. We’ll try to make those changes. Some may happen before March 2, and some may take until the Draft, but we’ll look at everything, gather the information and try to make the best decision possible. Andrej Sekera and Jiri Tlusty are slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Where does that process currently stand?

Francis: They’re both real good players, and they’re real good character guys. Obviously, if we can get the right deal done, we’d like to sign them.

We’ve had some talks, and they’ve kind of cooled down for a bit. Things will probably start up here again this week or next week. I think it will happen fairly quickly in terms of where we think their demands are and where they want to be in regards to both term and money, and then we have to make a decision at that point whether we think that makes sense for our organization going forward or whether we have to go in a different direction.

We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but we’ll certainly come to that, I’m sure, well ahead of the March 2 deadline. With Marc Staal off the defenseman market, does Sekera’s value rise?

Francis: What’s happened in the past is that teams have raced to sign their own free agents. When you get to July 1, the talent pool isn’t as deep as you’d like. Heck, just look back at last July 1. There are probably some contracts that day you were shaking your head at, and now maybe shaking your head at even more. That’s part of the gamble, no question about it, but at the end of the day, you try to make your decision based on what’s best for the organization long-term. Slotting Eric Staal on Jordan Staal’s wing seems to be paying off right now. Was this something identified heading into the season?

Francis: We had talked about that last summer, actually. Unfortunately when Jordan went down, we didn’t get a chance to try it earlier, but it’s certainly something that we had talked about. With the emergence of Victor Rask playing the way he is in the middle, that allows us to take Eric out of the middle. A big reason why Jordan came here was to play with his brother. Now he’s getting the chance not only to play with him, but play on the same line, and the two of them are enjoying that. It shows in the effort and the way they’re playing. Should Ryan Murphy returns to the big club following the AHL All-Star Classic, the roster number would be at 23. Do you plan on carrying that many for the foreseeable future?

Francis: I think ideally for us we don’t carry 23. With the injuries, we’ve had as many as 27 or 28 at times here. I think picking up Andrej Nestrasil on waivers got us to that 23 number, and we’re comfortable at this point with that. We’ll just play it by ear as things progress over the next four or five weeks to see what numbers we have and where we go from there. You’re a first-year NHL GM, and you hired a first-year NHL head coach. What have been your impressions of Bill Peters and his coaching staff in the first four months of the season?

Francis: You go through the interview process and hire a guy you think is best for the job, but to be totally honest, until you see him work, you don’t know.

I think Bill has been everything that we hoped he would be from a management standpoint when we hired him. He’s holding guys accountable. He’s the hardest working guy in that room every day. No little stone goes unturned. He’s working on every little detail. He sees something in a game that he’s not happy with, we address it right away the next day and move forward.

As tough as he can be on the accountability aspect, he’s also fair. I think as a player, that’s what you appreciate. You know where you stand. I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from agents and players. They like the direction he’s taking them in, and I’m pleased with the direction on the ice.

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