Can Francis change culture in Carolina?

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
12:29
PM ET
The Carolina Hurricanes made significant changes in their front office and behind the bench -- Ron Francis took over as general manager while former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Bill Peters replaced Kirk Mueller as head coach -- following the team’s 13th-place finish last season. But the personnel has not fluctuated much.

And considering that the roster remains largely intact, Carolina’s top players really have to step it up, according to former Hurricane Jeff O’Neill.

“When you have a lot of long-term [contracts], guys locked in to big money, there is a philosophy around the league that you are only as good as your bad contracts,” O’Neill told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation.

And that leaves at least a few players under some pretty intense scrutiny for the 2014-15 season. Chief among them, according to O’Neill, is goaltender Cam Ward.

[+] EnlargeJeff O'Neill
Getty ImagesFormer Hurricane Jeff O'Nell laments a lack of identity and one bad contract in particular in Carolina.
Ward, who is signed through 2015 on a six-year, $37.8 million deal, was hampered by injury for much of last season. But his performance even before that had waned significantly.

“I look at their team and they have some really good pieces there, but Cam Ward, he’s gotta be to the Carolina Hurricanes what Jonathan Quick is to the LA Kings,” O’Neill said. “I love the guy, but he hasn’t been good enough or consistent enough to give the team a chance to win every night.”

O’Neill, who played seven seasons for the Canes, expects Anton Khudobin to push even a healthy Ward for the starting position, leaving Ward in a pressure-laden spot heading into camp.

“This is probably the last chance for him in this organization because he’s being pushed to the brink by Khudobin,” said O’Neill, who now works as a television analyst.

O’Neill also said that Eric Staal and Jordan Staal both need to be better to form the power tandem the Hurricanes envisioned when they united the brothers in Carolina. And young defenseman Justin Faulk has to be at his best for the ‘Canes to truly compete for a playoff spot.

And don’t even get O’Neill started on Alexander Semin, whose contract he finds “disgusting” and suspects will go down as “the biggest mistake" former GM Jim Rutherford has ever made.

Semin is inked through 2018 on a five-year deal that pays him $7 million annually.

“I like him for five-minute segments, but when the going gets tough, he just doesn’t compete,” said O’Neill, who is known for both his colorful personality and unapologetic opinions. “If he had any work ethic or intangibles, he’d be better than [Alexander] Ovechkin. He’s that talented.”

But O’Neill does see some positive things on the horizon for his former club, namely Francis’ unwavering desire to win and the hire he made to help lead the way.

Though many suspected that Francis would hire Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, the GM opted instead for Peters in a move that few expected.

“I give Ron Francis a lot of credit, because I thought he’d go with one of his close friends like Ulf Samuelsson. It’s pretty easy to go with someone you know, but he went outside of the box with someone that was talked about a lot in coaching vacancies,” O’Neill said. “I really don’t know a whole lot about [Peters], but he will have fresh ideas. What I like about [having] a new coach is there are no ties there, it’s a fresh start, and it’s an opportunity for everyone to prove themselves right off the hop.”

O’Neill isn’t buying into the idea of a culture change just because of those changes, though. That starts from the top down, but ultimately it’s for the players to enforce, and the Hurricanes have to prove they are up for the task.

“I hear the term 'culture change' tossed around quite frequently, but that only happens when you have a visiting coach come in and you hear, ‘These guys are tough to play against,’” O’Neill said.

Playing against the New Jersey Devils, O’Neill was always aware that there was no margin for error, no leeway for making stupid plays. He sees that in a similar fashion with the Los Angeles Kings right now.

“You know every time you touch the puck, they are going to kill you,” O’Neill said. “Toronto, Carolina, the Islanders, they just seem to have no culture right now.”
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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