Risk, reward, and Ron Francis

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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.

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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.

Hurricanes owner Dundon invests $250M in Alliance of American Football

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By Barry Wilner (AP Pro Football Writer)

Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is investing $250 million in the Alliance of American Football.

Dundon also will serve as chairman of the fledgling eight-team league that began play on Feb. 9. His involvement came together in a matter of days last week, according to Dundon and Alliance co-founder Charlie Ebersol, though Dundon had been monitoring the AAF’s development and debut.

Ebersol dismissed reports Tuesday that the Alliance was getting a financial bailout from Dundon.

”This has been an extraordinary undertaking for us,” said Ebersol, who less than a year ago partnered with Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian to create the Alliance. ”It’s a giant challenge and opportunity, and as a startup you are constantly looking for some peace of mind. When we got out of the first week of games, we saw there was so much interest from investors, and if we had one person who could take care of us for a very long time, that would be great.”

Dundon said the AAF won’t be seeking more investors at this time.

”We won’t bring in anybody for capital. We’re not going to take people’s money,” he said. ”We have to decide who are the partners we want to be in business with. The Alliance already has great relationships with partners such as MGM (Resorts). There won’t be any money-raising. It will be growing the business.

”It’s so early into this. We’re all in the entertainment business, so we’re just making sure to continue to do what they have done, which is put out a quality product people want to watch and consume, and hopefully we have the capital in place to take advantage of new opportunities. Things are a lot easier when you have got the capital and connections to execute.”

Dundon also is the co-founder of Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, home of the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson tournament; the majority owner of Employer Direct Healthcare, a health care services company; and a primary investor in Topgolf, a sports entertainment company.

The Alliance has teams in Atlanta; Phoenix; San Diego; San Antonio; Memphis, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Orlando, Florida; and Salt Lake City. It will play a 10-week schedule before its playoffs, finishing on the final weekend of April.

Early response on TV – it has deals with CBS, Turner and NFL Network – and digitally was positive, Ebersol said.

He also said adding Dundon gives the league extra credibility.

”We think there will be other opportunities,” Ebersol said, ”but the fact we took one of the biggest worries of any startup off the table with a partner who has proven he knows how to build businesses – and not build to sell but build to build – is huge.”

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

NHL on NBCSN: 10 impressive stats on the Blues’ 10-game winning streak

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

There’s been no hotter team in the NHL since the end of January than the Blues, who ride a 10-game winning streak into Tuesday’s matchup with the Maple Leafs. Sunday’s 4-0 shutout of the Minnesota Wild continued St. Louis’ rise up the standings as a season that was looking bleak at one point has quickly turned into one that could very well include playoff hockey for the first time since 2017.

A Blues win at Enterprise Center on Tuesday would set a franchise record with their 11th in a row, passing the 10-game streak set by the 2001-02 Blues team that featured Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Chris Pronger, Pavol Demitra, and Al MacInnis.

How important has this streak been to the Blues’ season? When it began on Jan. 23, they sat 13th in the Western Conference. They’re now sixth and reside in the third spot in the Central Division. According to Money Puck, their playoff odds have risen from 40 percent to nearly 97 percent.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Since the 10-game winning streak began…

Vladimir Tarasenko leads all NHL players with 10 goals and is second behind Nikita Kucherov with 20 points. Ryan O’Reilly is second on the Blues with four goals. Brayden Schenn is second on the team with 13 points. Tarasenko has 15 goals in his last 19 games and is riding a career-best 12-game points streak.

• Only the Chicago Blackhawks (44) have scored more goals (40) than the Blues. No team has allowed fewer goals (14) than St. Louis.

• Of their 40 goals, 23 have come via a wrist shot, tied for most in the NHL.

• The Blues have scored the most even strength goals with 30, per Natural Stat Trick.

• None of the Blues’ wins have needed the shootout. Only two victories have come via overtime.

• The third period against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 5 was the last time the Blues trailed in a game.

Jordan Binnington’s .964 even strength save percentage is the highest among goaltenders with at least five appearances. His goals against average is also a sparkling 1.24 during this streak.

• No other rookie goalie in franchise history has won eight straight games like Binnington has. Brent Johnson previously held the record by winning seven in a row twice during the 2000-01 season.

• Only Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning has as many shutouts (3) as Binnington. The Blues netminder is now the seventh goalie in NHL history to post four shutouts in his first 14 career starts.

• Binnington and Jake Allen have registered three straight shutouts entering Tuesday night. The shutout streak is at 187 minutes and 16 seconds, which is the fourth-longest in franchise history.

MORE: Winning with Binnington: Blues goalie making most of chance

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres’ Okposo sent home 3 days after being punched in face

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo has been sent home for further medical evaluation three days after being punched in the face during a fight with the New York Rangers’ Tony DeAngelo.

Coach Phil Housley gave no details on Okposo’s condition in providing the update after the Sabres practiced in Florida on Monday. Though the nature of the injury is unclear, Okposo did not return after being felled by DeAngelo’s punch during the fight 7:51 into the third period of a 6-2 loss to the Rangers on Friday.

Okposo traveled with the team for the start of its three-game road trip at New Jersey, but did not play in the 4-1 loss to the Devils on Sunday.

The 30-year-old has a history of concussion-related troubles during his 12 NHL seasons.

He missed the final two weeks of the 2017-18 season and spent a week in a hospital after sustaining a concussion during what he called a routine hit in practice. He also missed a week last March after sustaining a concussion following a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan.

Housley also announced defenseman Marco Scandella is listed week to week with an upper body injury.

The Sabres play at Florida on Tuesday night.

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

UPDATE:

PHT Morning Skate: Stone’s decision; Zibanejad’s season

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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.

• “While the indications are centre Matt Duchene is ready to move on to try to win a title, the Senators tabled a new offer to Stone, the club’s top player, last week and general manager Pierre Dorion is waiting for word from his representatives at Newport Sports for an answer.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• If you’re a seller this deadline it might be best to sit those trade chips before next Monday. [TSN]

• “The Sabres headed for the airport to continue their road trip, but it feels like they’re heading to nowhere other than warm weather. The time for General Manager Jason Botterill to do something to stem the tide seems gone, even though the trade deadline is just seven days away.” [Buffalo News]

• Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving on the trade deadline: “I’m a firm believer that you build your team in the summer. Wholesale changes and major operational changes during the season, for a whole bunch of reasons it’s more difficult to do, I feel.” [NHL.com]

• How will New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello approach the deadline? [Islanders Insight]

• Why a Jonathan Huberdeau for Shayne Gostisbehere deal makes sense. [Featurd]

• Good read on the relationship between Carter Hart and Connor Parkkila, a seven-year-old boy who has autism. [NBC Philadelphia]

• The story behind Roberto Luongo’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas mask, which he wore on the one-year anniversary of the school shooting. [Panthers]

• Another day, another Peter Chiarelli move undone. The Edmonton Oilers placed Brandon Manning on waivers Monday with the purpose of assigning him to the AHL Bakersfield Condors. [Oilers]

Mika Zibanejad is having a memorable season for the New York Rangers. [Blueshirt Banter]

• The battle for the Pacific Division crowd is shaping up to come down to the wire. [NBC Bay Area]

• The Arizona State Sun Devils continue their march toward the NCAA tournament. [College Hockey News]

• Gretzky and Lemieux together again! Trevor Gretzky and Alexa Lemieux have roles in a hockey movie called “Odd Man Rush,” which is being co-produced by former Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin. [USA Today]

Jake DeBrusk of the Boston Bruins is someone you should add to your fantasy team this week. [Rotoworld]

• Finally, here’s the trailer for the upcoming documentary on the Russian Five:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.