For Francis, trade deadline could be defining moment as ‘Canes GM

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In April, Ron Francis will celebrate the second anniversary of his hiring as Carolina’s general manager.

But prior to that, he’ll have experienced what’s easily his biggest task to date.

This year’s trade deadline is a crucial one for both Francis and the organization. Two faces of the franchise — Cam Ward and captain Eric Staal — are pending UFAs, as are a slew of potentially movable veterans: Kris Versteeg, John-Michael Liles, Riley Nash and Brad Malone, to name a few.

But it’s not as simple as Francis putting a “YARD SALE” sign on the lawn and waiting for buyers.

Heading into tonight’s game in Calgary, Carolina is right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, just three points back of Pittsburgh for the final wild card spot.

The ‘Canes also have an interesting month of February.

Starting Feb. 12, the club will play eight of 10 games at home, where the ‘Canes have been pretty good this season. They’re 12-9-5 at PNC and have won their last two home dates emphatically, 5-2 over Calgary and 5-0 over Chicago.

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So Francis has a tough decision on his hands. Stick with the long-term vision, and recoup assets/draft picks by flipping UFAs by the deadline?

Or keep the group together, and make a playoff push?

Here’s a quick look at where things are at with some of the players mentioned above.

Staal/Ward: Both represented by agent Rick Curran, who told the Raleigh News & Observer this week there’s “nothing new to report” on extensions for both.

Of Ward and Staal, the latter is the hottest commodity in terms of trade potential, but he told the News & Observer Francis has yet to approach him about waiving his no-trade clause, nor has Francis asked for a list of potential trade partners.

Versteeg: An interesting commodity. While he’s not the player he once was, he’s still in the midst of a solid bounce-back campaign (31 points in 50 games) and has a wealth of playoff experience, with two Stanley Cups on his resume.

The real key, of course, is that Versteeg’s $4.4 million cap hit has been cut in half due to Chicago retaining salary from a previous trade.

It stands to figure several teams would be interested in a versatile forward that logs 16:30 TOI per night and can score at a reasonable clip — especially at a $2.2M hit.

Recently, Versteeg said he “would not be shocked” if he’s traded by the deadline.

Liles: His name was floated by the News & Observer earlier this week. The veteran defenseman has enjoyed a good season in Carolina — he’s been durable (averaging over 20 minutes while appearing in all 51 games) and his offense has increased lately, with four goals in his last 11 games.

Head coach Bill Peters was full of praise for the 35-year-old, calling Liles “a real good pro,” that’s been “excellent with our young guys.”

Liles is in the last of a four-year, $15.5 million deal with a $3.875M cap hit. It’s worth noting his salary is only $2.75M this season.

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