Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis
is no stranger to facing adversity.
Francis was a member of the 1987-88 Hartford Whalers and the 2003-04 Carolina Hurricanes, two teams that began the season winless in five straight games. That was the franchise record for such a stretch until this season.
As October draws to a close, the Canes remain winless in their first eight games (0-6-2), not the start the first-year general manger – or perhaps anyone, for that matter – imagined.
“I don’t think anybody wants to start the season with all the injuries we’ve had. You go through the summer trying to build something and before you even start, you’re missing players – and key players. So that’s frustrating,” Francis said on Tuesday evening. “We’ve had guys, as a result, playing higher in the lineup than normally should be, guys playing more minutes than they normally should be. It’s been positive that some of those guys have responded well, but having said that, there are individuals that, even in the circumstances, can and need to play better.”
Slow starts breed trade chatter, genuine or otherwise. The vultures begin to circle, wanting to pick the carcass clean of any and all valuable assets.
While there is certainly cause for concern, knee-jerk reactions in the early going could prove detrimental in the long run. But Francis is constantly exploring his options to improve the on-ice product.
“I think you’re always doing it, but a lot of teams don’t have the situation that we have, and a lot of teams are in a situation where they’re still trying to assess. They’ve got their team playing, and they’re assessing what they have and don’t have. From that standpoint, it’s still early for teams to want to make deals,” Francis said. “Unfortunately, we’re in a little bit of a different situation. I think we’re always constantly looking and talking, but to this point, basically the things that have been offered are, in our eyes, contracts that other teams don’t want. That’s not really how we’re going to fix this problem. We’re in a hole, and we’ve got to stop digging and figure a way to make ourselves better to get out of it.”
While the Canes were on standby in Vancouver over the weekend, Francis and Assistant General Manager Mike Vellucci flew to the West Coast of the United States to see a handful of games.
“It’s just part of the job. You have to know the rest of the league,” Francis said. “It provided me an opportunity to go catch some games. I was able make three flights and catch six different teams. That’s what I did and got back in here last night to get ready for our game tonight.”
Arriving back in Vancouver to see the Canes take on the Canucks in the team’s final game in October gave Francis and his brain trust a chance to evaluate their squad with Eric Staal back in action for the first time in five games. Since Jeff Skinner had missed the team’s first four games of the season with a concussion, Tuesday night marked the first game of the season that the Canes’ two leading scorers from a year ago were in the lineup.
Staal proved to be a linchpin for the Canes’ top line; he looked fresh, swift and strong, created a number of scoring opportunities and tallied his third point of the season on Jiri Tlusty’s third-period goal. After the game, head coach Bill Peters said Staal had a lot of energy and played hard.
“He’s one of our best players, he plays in all situations and he plays a lot of minutes,” Francis said. “Getting him back certainly helps.”
Even with Eric in the lineup, the Canes depth down the middle remains weakened with Jordan Staal sidelined for three to four months; losing your top two centers to injury right out of the gate is, not surprisingly, a near-crippling problem to solve and would be the same for many teams in the league.
“[Jordan] is a big part of our team. That’s going to take until January or February, so we’re never really going to have the group we thought we were going to have going into the season, at least for a long time,” Francis said. “When you’re playing games with six guys out of the lineup and four of them probably your best players, it’s certainly tough.”
Injuries or otherwise, the bottom line remains that the Canes simply haven’t been a good enough team to win on most nights. Staal said as much after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss. The execution needs to be proper and deliberate, and the effort needs to be present for 60 minutes or more. When that comes together, the Canes will break out of their slump.
It will happen – it has to happen – sooner or later, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
“There’s no easy fix,” Francis said. “Other teams aren’t going to feel sorry for you and take it easy on you, so you just have to suck it up and fight through it.”