By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – Somewhere, be it in the Triangle, up in Sault Ste. Marie, or elsewhere, former Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis must be cracking his trademark smile.
Who wouldn’t be smiling following the Hurricanes’ offensively explosive 8-5 win over the New York Rangers at PNC Arena on Sunday.
Claiming five of a possible six points after its first three games, Carolina sits at 2-0-1, a franchise mark that has only been reached once previously back in 1995-96, a clean 3-0-0 mark.
Everyone in Raleigh is ecstatic right now.
Even more so following the team’s second win in as many games following a closely contested 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on opening night Thursday.
Captain Justin Williams hit 11 on the Hurricanes Love meter when he led the team into the end boards as part of its post-game celebration and thanks to the 13,526 fans in attendance.
Following a 3-1 win at Columbus on Saturday, head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s first NHL win behind the bench, this team continued to record firsts on the ice this season.
With seven different scorers against the Rangers – yes, seven – it became downright overwhelming.
Of course, the gushing flow of appreciation and excitement of not only winning, but hitting the scoring motherload, was deservedly exhilarating.
The NHL’s 2018 second-overall pick forward Andrei Svechnikov scored his first NHL goal, the eventual game-winner, along with tallying an assist.
Martin Necas, Carolina’s top pick in 2017, recorded his first NHL point with an assist on 2014 third-round pick Warren Foegele’s first goal of the season.
Since making his NHL debut late last season, Foegele has now scored four goals in his first five games, a franchise record.
Along with another goal and assist, Foegele recorded his second multi-point game of his short career.
A 2014 fourth-round pick, forward Lucas Wallmark scored his first goal of the season too – the second tally of his career with the big club.
Teuvo Teravainen finally tallied his first goal of the season to round out the game’s scoring, the team’s first power play goal, sitting 1-for-8 on the season to date.
So, what does all this have to do with Francis, the former Hall of Fame player-turned-front office executive who was unceremoniously ousted following majority owner Tom Dundon’s takeover of the team late last season?
Well, it’s simple.
With the exception of Svechnikov, all the previously named catalysts in Sunday’s win were fruits borne from of the labor put in by Francis during his time leading the team’s hockey operations.
The simple fact that prior to his tenure, under GM Jim Rutherford, and following the team’s Stanley-Cup winning 2005-2006 season, the Hurricanes struggled to maintain a solid prospect development base.
Rutherford dropped top picks into the lineup amongst more veteran-laden teams that underachieved year-to-year and resulted in only a 2009 playoff appearance.
First-round picks Jeff Skinner (2010), Ryan Murphy (2011), Elias Lindholm (2013), and Noah Hanifin (2015) all eventually got their shot to start in the NHL.
Francis sought to build a foundation with and around those players.
First-round picks aren’t that hard to project and put into a lineup.
They get their chance by default, talent-laden and highly touted, to hopefully live up to the hype that is built up around them.
As long as the organization believes they’ll succeed, they’ll get their shot sooner than later.
Queue Svechnikov and Necas on that point.
However, the true ability to find and develop future NHLers takes time and comes from the Draft’s lower-round picks.
That is a credit Francis must be given before too many people forget from where this newfound talent surge really emanated from.
After five missed postseasons, GM apprentice Francis replaced Rutherford in 2014, and the Hall of Famer went to work to bring Carolina into the new age of prospect selection and development.
Not only did Francis and the team’s amateur scouting staff scour many corners of the U.S. and Canada, but increasingly more throughout Europe as well.
As analytics became ‘the thing’ for hockey operations and player personnel execs to utilize as a guide to draft selection and team construction, the Hurricanes took a leading step in that area.
That’s where Francis’ work shows true.
Of the current Carolina player roster, ten of them were second through fourth-round picks.
Sebastian Aho, Justin Faulk, Victor Rask, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Brock McGinn all came out of the second round.
New fan darling Foegele and Brett Pesce came out of the third, while Jaccob Slavin and Wallmark were fourth-round picks.
And, there’s a boatload more drafted under Francis’ watch who are percolating in the AHL while playing for the Charlotte Checkers.
It’s a deep well of talent that eventually must explode upwards to a gusher level at some point.
Carolina’s preseason and early-season success has shown the effects of such seismic movement.
Under former head coach Bill Peters, it didn’t.
But under Brind’Amour, it has.
Apparently, the culture and atmosphere in the Hurricanes dressing room became increasingly suffocating and the pressure mounted for four more years of missed postseason participation.
There had to be a change, and the foundation that Francis took time to rebuild in fact facilitated a quick transition accordingly.
In hindsight, if still in the GM chair, would Francis have made the changes that current GM Don Waddell and a reworked hockey operations staff eventually did?
Maybe or maybe not.
He had the chance to, but he didn’t make any bold moves before Dundon took over.
When placed in that position, Waddell did because he had nothing to lose – the owner wanted change and he got it.
It was a win-win for the new GM.
After continually deepening the prospect pool, Francis remained unwilling to trade away the team’s first-round picks, at least not up to the point when he was removed from his position as GM.
Waddell made those moves easily and the trades of Skinner, Lindholm and Hanifin completed the Hurricanes’ shedding of such marquee picks.
Now, the only first-rounders remaining in the system aside from Svechnikov and Necas are forward Julien Gauthier and defensemen Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean.
Is that a good thing?
Only time will tell.
The Hurricanes have moved into uncharted territory in finding initial success to start the 2018-2019 season.
They’re relying on two young first-rounders to become the faces of the franchise – quickly.
However, it’s the core set of players drafted under Francis’ watch who have become decent pros over the past four years who are carrying the load.
The bonus is that under the leadership of Brind’Amour, they seemed poised to thrive and achieve to another level.
That’s what Francis desired – that was part of the plan.
The blue print was drawn by him, and now it’s simply being followed by Waddell and the rest of the Carolina hockey operations think tank.
To do otherwise, would be misguided.
It’s a pretty simple thing to do when someone’s done the work for you already.
After only three regular-season games, preceded by six preseason contests, there is a different level of enthusiasm that has established a base of confidence in this roster of players not seen in years by others.
The fans have picked up on it.
As everyone cheers and gets excited to follow the success of this team now, Francis himself must be smiling as well – even just a little.
It may seem that things have changed, but they are just different, really.
Ron Francis may not be front and center, but once again, his legacy has been etched into the fabric of this organization, for better or for worse.
No one can take that away from him, regardless of title or position.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport