RALEIGH — Every NHL team goes through peaks and valleys. The best teams of the last decade — the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings — all bottomed out and were rewarded with high draft picks that turned around their fortunes.
High draft picks alone, however, do not lead to Stanley Cup success. The general managers for each of those teams made pivotal moves that defined their tenures and steered their team in the right direction.
Stan Bowman signed two-way star Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract that helped bring three Cups to Chicago. Dean Lombardi’s acquisition of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (and, to a lesser extent, Justin Williams) bolstered a Kings roster that had draft picks Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar as cornerstones. And Jim Rutherford — the guy who traded for Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina — added Phil Kessel to an attack that already had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Another of those tenure-defining deals came Sunday when Colorado GM Joe Sakic finally traded away Matt Duchene in a three-team deal that set in motion the Avalanche’s full rebuild.
The Carolina Hurricanes, despite being pegged by some as a perfect suitor for Duchene, were not one of the teams involved.
Which brings us to Carolina’s man in charge, Ron Francis.
Francis’ three-plus years helming the the Hurricanes have been a master class in building from the ground up. Carolina stockpiled assets and rebuilt the farm system. He took aim at cap-troubled teams (see Chicago and Bowman) to add young, talented players. And he targeted coveted free agents (signing the aforementioned Williams and trading for the rights and inking goaltender Scott Darling) to plug holes.
But while Nashville GM David Poile waited almost two decades to make his blockbuster deal, trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, Francis can’t afford to have that kind of patience.
The hard reality is that Carolina is a team that has spun its wheels for too long — eight seasons outside the playoffs — and has sold hope without yet delivering it.
There’s no doubt Bill Peters is a good coach. He implemented structure when there was none under his predecessor, Kirk Muller. He has been willing to give young players important, prominent roles, something that was always in question under two-times former coach Paul Maurice. And he hasn’t been shy about making it public that he had asked Francis for more talent.
One can question if his message has grown stale with the players, but rest assured that if Peters was dismissed from the Hurricanes he wouldn’t stay unemployed long.
Like Pierre Dorion in Ottawa, Francis has a good coach in place but there is something missing. Dorion put his job on the line by acquiring Duchene, an unquestionably talented player whose contract — he’s an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019 — made it tough to part with major assets.
However, Dorion knows he needs to convince superstar Erik Karlsson — also a free agent in two summers — to stay, and adding a world-class talent like Duchene is a good start.
Francis needs to do the same if he wants to keep Jeff Skinner beyond next season.
More importantly, he needs to put his stamp on the franchise the way Rutherford did in 2000 by dealing for Brind’Amour, the player who would captain the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup.
Passing on the high-priced Duchene is understandable — it never felt like a perfect fit for the Hurricanes, even though they had to the assets to make the move.
A coaching change doesn’t feel right either. Former Francis teammate Dave Tippett immediately comes to mind when considering a big-name coach who is available, but he is coming off an oh-so-familiar five-year stretch outside the playoffs with the similarly budget-conscious Coyotes and his price tag might be too hefty for an owner who is in the midst of trying to sell the franchise.
Charlotte Checkers coach Mike Vellucci has no shortage of experience behind the bench, even if its not in the NHL, but would not be a shocking jolt to the organization.
No, a coaching change doesn’t feel like enough. And Francis — for all the positive things he has done in rekindling the Hurricanes in Rutherford’s aftermath — needs to light a fire under his team.
Francis has long been “The Franchise” for the organization, both in Raleigh and in Hartford. His steady guidance as a player has carried over to his role as an executive.
His playing career was defined by his trade to Pittsburgh, where he won his two Stanley Cups. His managerial legacy needs to be cemented — one way or the other — by a similar gamble.