Big news out of Carolina this week, as their lovable new owner shanked his well-respected, long-tenured GM that everyone liked up until about one minute before he got, ahem, “promoted.”
Subprime loan mogul Tom Dundon made his first big impact on the team he just bought in early January, moving Ron Francis to the role of “president of hockey operations” with no clear duties, and saying he will replace the Hall of Famer with a GM who will report directly to the owner.
Put another way: Dundon wants to make all player personnel decisions and Francis wasn’t about to give him that power, despite whose signature was on his paychecks.
Elliotte Friedman said during the intermission show for Wednesday’s Canucks/Coyotes game (why did I watch it?) that part of this may stem from Dundon perhaps wanting Francis to make a big move at the deadline and he didn’t do it. Aaron Ward reported a little while before that surprising reveal that the decision was made about five days before the actual announcement; that means the decision came on March 2. That day, Carolina won its second straight against a Metro opponent, winning 3-1 against New Jersey after winning 4-1 in Philly the night before. However, since the deadline, the Hurricanes were just 2-2-1, with their most recent loss coming on the 6th, when they got smoked at Minnesota 6-2.
Dundon, then, might have given Francis a week or so to get something going, maybe make up some ground in the playoff race. Didn’t happen.
A lot of people who liked Francis’s approach as recently as this past summer are now ready to shiv the guy because his big bet on a goalie hasn’t worked out. Now, to be fair it’s more than reasonable to criticize the Darling contract…. in hindsight. I don’t recall too many people saying it was too much money or term this summer; the consensus seemed to be that Darling had earned the shot as a legit No. 1 and Carolina was moving to address what had been a serious problem in Raleigh for a very long time.
Yes, Darling has been pathetic this year (.887 in 35 appearances). But are we really going to sit here and say, “Ah well, his career is over after 35 admittedly very bad games?” Because you’re not gonna believe this, but Carey Price had a season in which he went .900 over 35 games one time. He had another one in his second year in the league, when he went .897 for a 35-game stretch in the middle of a season. I’m not arguing that Scott Darling is Carey Price, obviously, but the point is that even elite goaltenders can have bad stretches of 35, 40 games. Darling isn’t elite, but if the best in the world can do it, why can’t a guy who might be a lower-end starter?
Let’s also keep in mind that Carolina entered the season with one of the lowest payrolls in the league — they currently have more than $15.8 million in untapped cap space — since their previous owner was a notorious penny-pincher except when it concerned guys who had won a Cup for him in 2006. For a long time, the Hurricanes were just sort of scraping by, financially. Now a billionaire sweeps into town, says he doesn’t care as much about making money with the team (it’s a tax write-off baby!!!) and just wants to win.
Give a smart GM resources to actually sign players, without having to sell a bunch of futures for a no-sure-thing deadline transaction just to maybe get into the playoffs and then get demolished by an actual good team, and he’s probably going to produce for you.
The question, I guess, is how the people praising this move went from saying Francis was taking a smart approach at building a winning roster before the season started to saying his vision was fundamentally flawed because of one bad bet on a goalie based on a rather small sample size. (Likewise, if we’re all supposed to be mad about the Josh Jooris signing or Marcus Krueger trades, I think that’s going overboard. Wasn’t that kinda sorta the team Going For It?)
Seems to me that much like when Terry Pegula bought the Sabres — and said he was taking off the budgetary training wheels, so the team could pursue a Stanley Cup — a lot of people are more than happy to buy a line of talk from some rich guy who might be better than the old owner in some ways, but also seems like he just wants to pal around with pro athletes and be in a club of other rich guys who own sports teams.
And by the way, let me know how that Sabres’ Cup pursuit is going, fellas. I think maybe just being a rich guy saying you’re willing to throw money at the problem isn’t gonna solve that problem. Might just be me.
Indeed, Friedman also said Dundon wants to be more like Mark Cuban. And hey, Cuban’s on the sidelines making an ass of himself, but you can’t say he hasn’t built a good, solid franchise. The Dallas Mavericks once had the best record in the NBA and went to a Finals once, before finally winning it five years later in 2011, just 11 years after Cuban first bought the team. I’m saying “just” as a joke there. That’s a long time, and while the Mavs never missed the playoffs with Cuban as the owner until 2013, they also lost in the first or second round on a pretty regular basis.
Point is, being a prominent-in-the-media, fingers-in-the-pie owner doesn’t really guarantee you any kind of success. Seems like Pegula has been in on a lot of Sabres hockey decisions, and you see where that’s gotten them. And how is that working out for Eugene Melnyk in Ottawa? When owners want final say on personnel decisions, they do of course get it. But since most of those guys couldn’t have picked a star player on their team out of a lineup before buying it, maybe that’s something best left to the guys who get paid to at least be able to name 10 NHL players.
You hear rumors about what Dundon might have been pushing for, tradewise. Big-name players who would have absolutely helped the Hurricanes. You also hear what the asks for those players were, including some promising young players who would have likely blossomed in their primes and become some of those “Why can’t the Hurricanes get guys like that?” players in three or four years, while the players Francis would have traded for aged into their 30s.
The NHL is of course overly deferential to playing experience when it comes to decision-making, which is why so many GMs are former players in the first place. It’s a problem to be sure, but at least these guys have spent decades in the game, right? What in Dundon’s background gives anyone the impression that he is qualified to make these decisions? This isn’t charging someone living below the poverty line 29 percent interest on an auto loan; it’s making hockey decisions.
Friedman also quoted Dundon as saying he thinks Francis is a “valuable resource. But our styles couldn’t be any [more] different. It is no more complicated than that.” Dundon further added he doesn’t “want to make decisions,” which might be true; he probably just wants a guy who makes the decisions he would also make anyway. Dundon also pushed back against the idea that a deadline deal-or-no-deal wasn’t the issue here, but that, like saying Francis is a “valuable resource” strikes one as being particularly politic at a time when people around the league and certainly within the fanbase aren’t happy with this move.
Dundon will have to prove he doesn’t just want a yes-man as GM, who will aggressively and needlessly pick up the phone any time Dundon says to go get a player. In the meantime, who wants to take bets on the UFA who shoots 21 percent in this year’s playoffs to get a Ville Leino contract from Francis’s replacement on July 1? And who wants to take bets on how many of the media dopes saying the Francis firing was a savvy move also say that contract is a good bet?
We all have our biases, right? People like me thought Francis was doing a good job because his transactions reflected a willingness to listen to the “smart” “analytics” people he hired (some of whom happen to be professional acquaintances of mine, in the interest of full disclosure), and some of us were already highly skeptical of Dundon’s over-the-top framing of himself as a Solutions Guy.
It’s hard to foresee what’s actually going to happen with this roster in the months ahead. Dundon might demand some big changes and get them from a guy whose job it is to say, “Right away, Mr. Dundon,” and nothing more.
And maybe that’s all the team needs; after all, most people thought they were a goalie away from being competitive before it turned out they got the wrong goalie (at least this year). Another big-money add might push this team over the top. But then again, after however-many years of subpar goaltending and low shooting percentages, maybe you say that all the talent Francis amassed wasn’t being maximized by coach Bill Peters. All the underlyings are there now and, in recent years, have been there before.
Peters is in his fourth year as coach and, despite improving talent every single season, has bee in the same range of wins (30 to 36) the entire time. This year’s Hurricanes team should eclipse that (they have 29 in 67 as I type this).
And here are the team’s rankings in shooting percentages from 2014-15 to present: 29th, 28th, 20th, and 28th. Save percentage? 27th, 29th, 27th, and 31st. The latter number you say, “Well, Cam Ward.” But also, Eddie Lack, Anton Khudobin, and Scott Darling. All of them came to Carolina with good save percentages. All of them posted .902 or less. Ward’s number over the last four years is the best of the bunch at .908, and that number also stinks. So maybe, just maybe, if we can acknowledge Darryl Sutter’s system likely suppressed LA’s shooting percentage, maybe it’s possible Peters’ has a negative impact on save percentage (and shooting percentage ha ha ha).
What I guess I’m saying is, if you’re gonna fire someone, fire the coach whose team never seems to be able to put it together, despite the fact that everyone agrees the GM built a respectable roster.
Hey, maybe Peters is just a little more pliable. Or perhaps if Francis had been just a little more willing to sell off a few high picks to get a real needle-mover like Tomas Tatar(???), we wouldn’t be in this mess.
But people are picking sides now. And for some reason, plenty of them seem to want to side with the meddlesome owner. In the NHL, that’s always a good look that works out for all involved.