Risk, reward, and Ron Francis

6 Comments

As PHT’s Scott Billeck chronicled upon word of the Carolina Hurricanes firing, er, “re-assigning” Ron Francis out of the GM position, goaltending is the one big thing that doomed Francis. At least in the big picture.

Publicly speaking, new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon made it clear that he wants to take a hands-on role with some of the Hurricanes’ decision making. He told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that a cricket-chirp of a trade deadline wasn’t the deciding factor.

One thing Dundon disagreed with is the idea that something happened at the deadline that caused the final rift. He said the team was considering adding before a home-heavy stretch in February, but it didn’t go well. Therefore both he and Francis decided it wasn’t worth what it would take to acquire more at the end. The cost, in terms of Carolina’s best young players/prospects, was too great.

Still, it’s tough not to notice the timing of this firing and not think that this comes down to a tepid trade deadline, and Carolina’s slow-burn team-building approach.

What can other GMs learn from Francis’ demise, beyond “Make sure you’re on the same page as your owner?” Let’s see:

Not too hot, not too cold

When a GM runs too hot with trades, he could get burned. I mean, unless that GM is Steve Yzerman or David Poile. Then other GMs should just click the “ignore call” button.

Peter Chiarelli (Oilers) and Marc Bergevin (Canadiens) both could have done well to take a cold shower instead of making moves that look worse with each passing month.

Every night seems to bring about a new insult to Chiarelli, whether it comes from Mathew Barzal generating a highlight-reel goal or Taylor Hall bolstering his Hart Trophy credentials. Bergevin, meanwhile, gets to watch P.K. Subban chase a Stanley Cup while his locker room crumbles.

It must burn Francis to see Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff make a big splash after years of people making “dayo off jokes,” with Paul Stastny‘s parallels to Francis making for especially cruel timing. While Francis only served as Hurricanes GM for four seasons, Cheveldayoff has been at his perch since 2011. Cheveldayoff bests Francis in trade volume because just about everyone does, but this was really his first major trade since moving Evander Kane for Tyler Myers in 2015. Cheveldayoff got time to wait things out; Francis did not.

During the last few years, the Hurricanes assembled an enviable warchest of defensemen, hired a competent coach who’s helped them hog the puck, and collected some nice forward assets. That’s not enough in a tough Metro division, and so the Hurricanes idle by.

While there’s some talk about the Golden Knights greasing the wheels for Francis’ exit, it’s difficult to shake the notion that the Hurricanes failed to add that “extra oomph” to their lineup while other teams did.

Sure, it might make you flinch to trade a young defenseman, whether that is Noah Hanifin or an older, still-young piece like Justin Faulk, but look at the Predators. It couldn’t have been comfortable to trade Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, and maybe history will smile upon the Blue Jackets’ take more than Nashville’s when it’s all over. That trade, and others like it, helped Nashville go from a team of extremes to a more balanced attack. It wasn’t long before they were two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, stand as fancy stats darlings that haven’t tasted playoff play since 2008-09, and that was their only playoff appearance since that stunning Stanley Cup win in 2005-06.

No doubt, if you look at the Hurricanes PDO (or shooting percentage and save percentages individually, if that’s more your speed), you’ll see that they’ve been unlucky much of the time. Still, sometimes you have to “make your luck.”

(And do note that, bad goaltending aside, this team scored goals at a rate far fewer than league average. Wouldn’t that lack of punch inspire you to hit the phones a little harder during deadline time? Just saying.)

Backup plan

And, hey, it’s not like Francis took zero risks.

You can bellow about hindsight being 20/20 all you want, but there were some leaps of faith when it came to goaltending moves. For one thing, there was little evidence that Cam Ward would deliver on the two-year, $6.6 million extension he’s playing out. (Few deals truly say “We don’t have any better ideas” quite like that.)

There’s little sense arguing that Scott Darling was a safe choice, either.

Now 29, the big goalie didn’t come in with much pedigree as the 153rd pick of the 2007 NHL Draft. His pre-NHL stats are a mixed bag, though he was starting to pick up steam starting in 2013-14.

No doubt, his .923 save percentage with the Chicago Blackhawks was fantastic, yet that mark came in just 75 regular season games. It makes you wonder if the Hurricanes should have hedged their bets a bit. That said, few would have expected the Darling signing to blow up in Carolina’s face to this degree.

Goalies are a tough breed to gauge, with even mostly bright franchises whiffing at times. Still, maybe the Hurricanes were better off following their overall MO of not making bold, dangerous moves for the sake of making them? If you’re not truly certain a goalie is a franchise fit, maybe it’s better to leave your options open?

This Hurricanes situation provides additional evidence that NHL teams might be wise to put more resources into finding capable backups, whether it mean scouting, cap space, or both.

Take a look at the Calgary Flames. They defied critics by landing Mike Smith, who’s been great … only now he’s injured, and even after taking care of business against Buffalo last night, Calgary is up against a tough haul to fight its way back into the playoffs. Some of that is bad luck, some of it’s poor preparation; after all, Smith is 35 and has an injury history.

***

Look, it feels quite unfair to see Francis get such a short leash while other GMs continue to blunder away, even though they seem less capable. Even with the nitpicks in this post, it’s important to note that Francis leaves Carolina behind in a position to contend in the near future.

Sports, like life, can be cruel and unfair, though.

There’s a thin line in managing risk and reward. Ultimately, Francis couldn’t successfully walk that tightrope. It’s a reminder to other front offices just how difficult it can be to find the right balance.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

4 Comments

He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

Getty Images
2 Comments

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

Getty Images
5 Comments

SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

Getty
5 Comments

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.