Hall of Famer Ron Francis keeping his options open

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RALEIGH -- With a toot of his whistle, Ron Francis quickly assembled the Carolina Hurricanes' prospects at last week's conditioning camp.

"I see some of you coasting when you get to the blue line," Francis said during a skating drill at the RecZone. "No one coasts in the NHL. You've got to bust it every time."

Sounds like a coach, doesn't it?

A half-hour later, off the ice, Francis was discussing defenseman Brian Dumoulin, the Canes' second-round pick in the NHL draft last month.

"He's a big kid, and a lot of times you see those kind of guys have trouble skating, but I thought he did a good job with his skating aspects," Francis said. "As he gets stronger and fills out more, I think he's going to be a real solid player for us."

Sounds more like a player personnel director, doesn't it?

Which, of course, should be no surprise. Francis now serves as the Hurricanes' associate head coach and director of player personnel, a dual responsibility that gives him the opportunity to keep both future career paths open within the organization.

"I've been able to get experience in a lot of different facets of the game," Francis said, "From player development to working with our scouts and understanding how tough the job is, to bringing these kids along, to understanding what coaches go through and their conversations in the locker room as well the responsibilities on the management side and how to make the players fit and keep the budget in line and keep the fans happy. There's a lot of different parts that go into it.

"As a player you're just focused on the team and yourself and being as good as you can be, game in and game out, and everything is geared towards that. So it's been a good process in getting knowledge in a lot of different aspects of the business and what it takes."

During the prospect camp last week, forward Matt Kennedy said it was bit overwhelming being watched by someone who is a coach, makes personnel decisions and is also a Hockey Hall of Famer.

"It's a humbling experience being around him," said Kennedy, Carolina's fifth-round pick in the draft last month. "You can't learn enough from a guy like that.

"He's always talking to you, offering help. If you have a question, you don't feel any pressure going up and talking to him. He knows what we're going through and he can mentor us."

In that regard, Francis said his role hasn't changed significantly from last year's prospect camp. But, in truth, what a year it was -- for Francis, for the Hurricanes.

Francis was assistant general manager and director of player development when last season began. But when Peter Laviolette was fired as coach in early December, Francis took on the job of associate head coach after Paul Maurice replaced Laviolette. Francis was stepping into the unknown, going behind the bench for the first time.

And what a ride it became. The Hurricanes surged late in the season to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since winning the Cup in 2006, then knocked off the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins -- both with thrilling Game 7 victories on the road -- before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.

Only then could Francis sit back, take a breath, reflect on the season.

"It's like any job you have," he said. "There's probably 95 percent of it you love and there (are) certain things that are not your favorite things to do.

"But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting back on the ice again. I enjoyed sitting in meetings and breaking down film and helping plan strategy and practices and all that stuff. That was exciting. My friends in the coaching ranks had said getting behind the bench is the closest thing to being on the ice and that was obviously good."

And the downside?

"The tough part really was there was no flexibility in that schedule. It is what it is," he said. "The schedule dictates what you do, where you go and when you go, and that part was a little bit tough, especially to change in mid-stream. But overall I thought it was a good experience."

Francis, 46, discussed all those things -- the good, the bad -- with team president and general manager Jim Rutherford after the season.

Should he continue to coach? Should he be more involved on the management side? Could he do both? And what about the hours that would require?

"Jim and I had a couple of different talks," Francis said. "He was great. We were able to work things out that we think was best for everybody.

"I'm still doing the coaching angle but it's a pretty important year for us with some of the young kids we have and helping them to take the next step and get them ready as quickly as we can for the next level."

That means Francis will miss some games. There will be times he will be away watching the Canes' prospects with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League, or some of the junior players, or college players.

"It's a situation that's more unique to us," Rutherford said of the dual roles. "But we have someone who's good in a lot of areas and we want to use Ron to the fullest extent."

Francis said he should be behind the bench for all the home games, missing some of the road trips.

"There will be different times during the season where I need to go to Albany and spend time with our prospects or maybe go see some of our kids play, whether it's in college or what-have-you," he said. "When those things come up I wouldn't be with the team, but for the most part I should be around, especially all the home games and practices and meetings and all that stuff.

"It's not going to be a dramatic change but there will be trips where I go in a different direction than the team. It could be if the team goes out West for three or four days, I might be in Albany for those three or four days, so it will be a little bit different."

Rutherford said if the Canes' performance lags when Francis is away, there could be a reassessment on the number of games missed. But it's all a part of helping Francis decide which track best fits him -- management or coaching.

If Francis has an inkling which path he will likely take -- to being a head coach or a general manager -- he's keeping it to himself. He will take it a year at a time.

"A person like Ronnie can do many things," Rutherford said. "At some point in time, he will continue on in our organization in one of those areas."

Staff writer Lorenzo Perez contributed to this report.


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