Did Vegas kill Ron Francis? Hockey writer Damien Cox raised this question on Thursday in a piece for Sportsnet, and in doing that I think he is tugging at a corner of a tarpaulin that covers an abyss. On Wednesday the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes announced that Francis, a legendary player practically synonymous with the Dixieland club, was being “promoted” out of the general manager’s job to become the team’s “president of hockey operations.” The tight-knit NHL establishment was said to be angered by the brutality of the move.
Sometimes, you see, a hockey GM will be “promoted” in this way, and given an “operations” job, for semi-sincere reasons — when the owner wants to take his most trusted man away from fussy details in order to concentrate on the big strategic picture. New Carolina owner Tom Dundon, however, was specific about announcing that the new GM would report to him, and not to “President” Francis. Clearly Ronnie Franchise is going on what financiers and bureaucrats call “gardening leave.”
The Hurricanes have been mired in mediocrity and attendance struggles since their 2006 Stanley Cup victory. Dundon is swooping in from the world of finance to save hockey in Raleigh, N.C., and what Cox suggests is that keeping a veteran-player-turned-executive around to manage the team no longer looks as attractive as it once did — largely because of the inexplicable, damning performance in 2017-18 of the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team.
Vegas came into the league this offseason with a roster of castoffs from other NHL clubs. The initial expansion draft was, by conscious design, slightly more generous to VGK than historic drafts had been. But Knights GM George McPhee was also more creative than his expansion forerunners. He agreed to make several “second-best” choices from NHL rosters in exchange for added picks and scrubs, and quickly dealt away some players he had drafted, in exchange for more picks and scrubs.
At the time this looked like laying a foundation for the future rather than for instant success. VGK, being the first entrant in a market that pro sports leagues traditionally avoided, was bound to attract fans in its first year whether it did well or not. Analytical-type observers admired the novelty. But nobody thought the Golden Knights would be very good immediately.
Well, we are almost 70 games into an 82-game season, and the Knights have pretty much run away with the NHL’s Pacific Division. They have become a serious playoff contender while having the 24th largest salary-cap burden in a 31-team league. Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had seemingly run out of gas in Pittsburgh, is enjoying a renaissance. The Florida Panthers, faced with a salary-cap pinch, agreed to expose Jonathan Marchessault to the Knights and threw in forward Reilly Smith to sweeten the bargain: Marchessault and Smith are two-thirds of Vegas’s strongest line. Ex-Oiler David Perron, who had ping-ponged around the league, has 60 points in 61 games for Vegas; on the whole I would have been slightly less surprised to see him appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.
Early in the season it became common to attribute the Knights’ success to the “Vegas Flu.” The team, it was proposed, had a special home-ice advantage against inbound players who overindulged in the 24-hour Vegas desert-party environment. If you thought this theory was a little unjust, you could attribute the “flu” to the unusual festive atmosphere in the Knights’ arena, or to the emotional aftereffects of the terrible October mass shooting at a concert in the city. ESPN even proposed a theory involving “toxins” and tobacco smoke in casinos.
As of today, the Knights do have one of the NHL’s biggest goal differentials in home games, at +40. But they are also outscoring opponents on the road by +6, which is tied for seventh-best in that category. This is not an unusual split, not remotely an outlier. The Winnipeg Jets, whose home would be a good candidate for the anti-Vegas of the NHL or just of the world in general, has virtually the same numbers. It seems difficult to spot “Vegas Flu” under a statistical microscope.
Cox thinks Tom Dundon may have seen what is happening in Vegas and asked why his Hurricanes have been spinning their wheels for so long. Raleigh is hardly the only NHL city in which this question suggests itself: it could be asked in almost all the Canadian ones. The Knights started at a literal zero, with no legacy of bad contracts and old decisions, but they didn’t start the year with star players acquired by lot in earlier entry drafts. Hell, they don’t have any star players at all.
With the “Vegas Flu” narrative fading in significance, the Knights’ challenge to received NHL wisdom cannot help making one queasy with excitement and uncertainty. What if NHL teams have no real excuse for consecutive years of struggle, ever? What if the league as a whole is, in fact, just dumb and unimaginative — a cartel of dolts being shamed before our eyes? Or what if it is all random, and betokens nothing? And what other zillion-dollar businesses might be like this? The mind of the hockey fan struggles to grasp the bottom of the Vegas Void …
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