As a player, Ron Francis had great hands, but what really set him apart, what made him one of the most productive players in the history of the game and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was his vision.
Francis had that subconscious knack for seeing the play develop two or three milliseconds ahead of everyone else, and the skill to deliver the puck to the precise spot to create a scoring chance. He could always rely on that, which allowed him to play into his 40s even as the rest of his game inevitably slowed with age.
With one year in the books as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, Francis is clearly playing the same kind of game. In his end-of-season postmortem Wednesday, the message that came through the strongest was the same as it was when he was hired: He’s not worried about this year. He’s not worried about next year. He’s looking a long way down the road.
“We have to do what’s right for the organization long term,” Francis said. “I don’t want to get to the playoffs for one year and then miss it for four years. When we get to the playoffs, I want to make sure we’re there each and every year going forward. That’s been our vision and our plan to develop it that way.”
This is hockey-speak for: No quick fixes. No Band-Aids. So the Hurricanes didn’t win Saturday’s draft lottery to claim phenom Connor McDavid, and will pick fifth in a draft with three franchise players. They’ll still have five picks in the top 100 and two first-rounders next year.
In other words, Francis is willing to be even more patient, to borrow one of the owner’s more memorable turns of phrase.
This is a commendable stance to take, given it was his predecessor’s predilection for quick fixes and Band-Aids that put the Hurricanes in this fix. Jim Rutherford spent more time rearranging deck chairs than looking for icebergs, always believing that if the Hurricanes could just get in the playoffs anything could happen. In the post-2006 era, he went 1-for-8.
That’s not Francis’ game, as a player or a general manager.
No one wants a seventh straight season without a playoff appearance (or an eighth, or a ninth) and it’s anyone’s guess how well the franchise would weather a lengthening drought, especially if Peter Karmanos Jr. sells the team to interests outside the area. (And once the NHL adds two teams, most likely Las Vegas and Seattle, expect Quebec to come calling.)
But Francis isn’t worried about that, nor should he be. If his plan doesn’t come to fruition in three or four years, learning to speak French will be the least of his problems.
The Hurricanes were in a similar position in July 2005, when they were one of the final three teams left in the lottery draw for Sidney Crosby coming out of the lockout. That seemed more dramatic then than it does now, because of a precipitously timed commercial break.
The Hurricanes made the unarguable pick at No. 3: defenseman Jack Johnson, who they ended up trading a year later and who became an adequate player, but not the Chris Chelios clone scouts were predicting. The player they would have taken had they picked fifth or sixth was perennial All-Star Marc Staal.
And without Crosby, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup that season.
All of that is a long way of saying, even though the Hurricanes didn’t get McDavid, these things sometimes work out for the best.
“We talked last year about trying to build this thing right for the long term and start from the foundation,” Francis said. “Obviously the picks are great, as long as we do our job and draft the right players and develop the players and give them the best opportunity to be NHL players.”
The vision is there. Only time will tell if the execution is as well.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947