Just as it was clear to anyone who even loosely follows hockey that Ron Francis was headed to the Hall of Fame, it is equally apparent to Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice what Francis will be doing sooner rather than later.
He will be a head coach.
Or a general manager.
OK, so the exact position is a little hazy, but Maurice knows Francis will end up at the pinnacle of whatever path he chooses.
"Ron's going to do whatever he decides to do," Maurice said yesterday of his associate head coach hours before the Hurricanes faced the Penguins at Mellon Arena in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
"If it's management, then at some point he'll be a GM. If he wants to be a head coach, then at some point he's going to be a head coach. He could do that next season if he wants -- I hope they'll wait that long."
Francis, 46, one of the top two-way centers of the past generation, helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cup titles in the early 1990s after coming over from Carolina's predecessor, the Hartford Whalers, in March 1991 in one of the biggest trades in Penguins history.
In addition to the Cup, he won two of his three Lady Byng trophies for sportsmanship and a Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward during his seven-plus seasons with the Penguins before signing with Carolina.
He retired in September 2005 and has been working toward a decision on his post-playing hockey life.
"I'm not real sure," Francis said. "I initially came into it saying I really didn't want to be a part of coaching."
About a year after retiring, Francis became Carolina's director of player development. Then general manager Jim Rutherford made him assistant general manager.
When Maurice began his second tenure as Hurricanes coach, taking over Dec. 3 from Peter Laviolette, Francis moved behind the bench to his current position, at least for the balance of the season.
"We'll sit down when everything's all said and done and discuss which direction to go in," Francis said. "But it's been fun learning all these different aspects of it."
And beneficial for the Hurricanes.
In particular, Francis has worked closely with top-line center Eric Staal, who reached 40 goals for the second season and went into the game last night leading his team with nine goals, 13 points.
"Ron's been phenomenal since the moment he came onto the bench," Staal said. "He has that positive energy and a real knack for [suggesting] plays even in the midst of games to help you out with some open ice in the offensive zone, key on certain players on the other team. Just a great knowledge for the game that's really helped myself personally and a lot of our offensive guys."
Francis was nearing the end of his playing career when Staal arrived in the Carolina locker room in 2003 as an 18-year-old first-round draft pick. Francis had a flashback to 1981, when he was an 18-year-old first-round draft pick by the same organization when it was the Hartford Whalers. A veteran teammate and roommate, 41-year-old Dave Keon, looked out for him.
"Dave was pretty good to me in those first two years, teaching me the ropes," Francis said. "There I was sitting in my stall at 41 when Eric was coming in sitting next to me. So we have that relationship.
"He's a great kid, very talented player. I think it's just good to have a relationship where he has questions on maybe things he's seeing that I've seen. It's more on a friend-to-friend basis than anything else. It's great to work with a kid who's that good a person as well as hockey player."
Maurice, 42, had his playing career cut short by an eye injury and got his first NHL head coaching job with Hartford at age 28. He can't call on the same knowledge as a Hall of Famer such as Francis to guide a young star.
"Clearly, he has a great relationship with Eric and understands that game in a way that I don't, and very few people truly understand those top-end players," Maurice said.