New GM Ron Francis has a lot of fixing and tinkering to do with the Hurricanes' roster. (Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images)
By Allan Muir
Days like this don't usually go so easily.
But there was Jim Rutherford, the now ex-general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, sitting at the table, two down from Ron Francis, the man who was officially named today as his replacement. Everyone was all smiles.
Whether the transfer of power was entirely voluntary is up for debate. Rutherford guided Carolina to the Stanley Cup in 2006, but his teams have missed the playoffs in seven of the eight seasons since. He may have been asked to consider stepping aside after 20 years on the job. Or maybe he recognized the need for a new vision for the floundering franchise, like almost everyone else did.
Either way, Rutherford was able to abdicate his duties on his own terms, celebrating his achievements rather than focusing on his failures. Not a bad way to go out.
"I'm as proud as Jimmy is of this day," said owner Peter Karmanos, who sat between the two. "It's very rewarding to have a 30-year relationship with someone like Jim Rutherford and be able to go through [something] that is generally not handled well in sports and handle it as well as we've been able to do and bring along a quality person like Ron."
"Ronnie's paid his dues," Rutherford added. "He's a good person, he's a Hall of Fame player, he'll be a good general manager."
About 20 minutes later, the timer started for Francis.
Now comes the hard part.
After eight years in management, including the last two as Carolina's Vice President of Hockey Operations, Francis isn't just part of a committee. He's running the show.
It's on him to break that five-year streak of playoff DNQs.
His knowledge of the organization should be an asset. He knows who fits into his vision of what will work moving forward, and he knows what the organization lacks.
That starts with an identity. Rutherford left Francis with some solid building blocks, including a pair of beefy centers in Eric and Jordan Staal, a dazzling winger with 40-goal potential in Jeff Skinner, a solid No. 1 defender in Justin Faulk, and an intriguing group of prospects that includes Elias Lindholm, Phil Di Giuseppe and Ryan Murphy. But what does it all add up to? The Hurricanes now are just another faceless opponent that shows up on a Tuesday night in February.
What kind of team does Francis want to build?
"You have to be able to skate, you have to be a fast team," he said. "I like players who are smart, players who are skilled, players who absolutely love to compete. All things being equal, I would prefer a bigger player, that's my own preference. I want players who will put the logo on front ahead of the name on the back."
Considering that's what every GM wants, there's not a lot of insight there. We'll get a better idea when Francis makes a decision on the future of Kirk Muller. The team's coach appears to have the support of Karmanos, but Francis may want his own man. That could be current assistant (and former teammate) Rod Brind'Amour, or someone with head coaching experience, such as Barry Trotz or current Kings assistant John Stevens.
Once Francis makes that call, there's another to be made about goaltender Cam Ward. The hero of Carolina's Stanley Cup run is on the books for $6.3 million for the next two years, but is a long shot to earn the minutes that will justify that fat paycheck. If Francis can find another team that's willing to send him a seventh rounder or a copy of Goon on Blu-Ray or some prize tickets from Dave & Buster's, then he's an early contender for Executive of the Year. If not, Ward could be a buy-out candidate.
There are also 10 RFA forwards to consider, including those who may have run out of chances to impress (Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk) and those who have hinted, maddeningly, at their potential (Jiri Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov).
While Francis' familiarity with these players will come in handy, it'll help to have a fresh perspective to offer balance. That's why Karmanos dug into his Compuware empire to bring on Mike Vellucci to oversee scouting and player development for the 'Canes. Like Rutherford, Velluci cut his teeth as the GM of the OHL's Plymouth Whalers, where he helped develop Tyler Seguin, James Neal, James Wisniewski, Tom Wilson, Vince Trocheck and Rickard Rakell, among others. It's hard to imagine someone better qualified to take on this role.