Ron Francis diving right in as NHL GM in Seattle

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SEATTLE — Now that he is a couple months into the job, Ron Francis has gained a little more appreciation for the task he signed up for.

The easy decision for the 56-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer would have been to take a consulting or scouting gig, keep his family settled in North Carolina and avoided the kind of challenge that may eventually define his post-playing career.

”It’s not every day you get to build something from scratch, especially in professional sports,” said Francis, the general manager of Seattle’s expansion NHL franchise. ”You’ve got a blank canvas, you have the opportunity to build it, create your own culture how you want things to run.”

Francis is in the infancy of his tenure as Seattle’s GM. He was hired in July, more than two years before Seattle will play its first NHL game. For now, Seattle’s hockey brain trust consists primarily of three people: Francis, assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk and director of hockey administration Alexandra Mandrycky. Time is the greatest commodity they have, 24 months before the yet-to-be-named franchise takes the ice for a game that counts. They know that time will disappear rapidly.

”I think for us the biggest thing is not jumping into any sort of rash decisions,” Francis said. ”We have some time, let’s make sure we look at it from all the angles and make sure we’re thorough in our approach as we build things out.”

It was a calculated move by Seattle to put together its front office so far ahead of ever playing a game. Long before a team nickname, a naming rights deal for its arena or even a coach is considered, Seattle’s ownership decided it wanted its hockey operations staff to be the first significant moves. They wanted Francis, Olczyk and Mandrycky to have as much time as needed to put together Seattle’s first roster.

That means a significant amount of time for all three at this point is gathering information. They’re building a database from scratch. Mandrycky is responsible for developing the analytics Seattle will use in its evaluations. Olczyk handles contracts and the salary cap, and will be responsible for monitoring all the player movement that is likely to take place over the next 18 months and will eventually create the player pool Seattle will pick from.

Francis is watching over it all, building out the infrastructure of the front office while also putting together who will run Seattle’s AHL franchise in Palm Springs. Francis finalized his pro scouting staff last month – including the hiring of Cammi Granato as only female pro scout currently in the league – and his schedule for the upcoming season will take him all over North America and to Europe.

”There are some surprising parts of him,” team President and CEO Tod Leiweke said. ”He’s very much an innovator, fully embracing technology. We were the first team to hire a woman to lead our analytics and he and Alex have just built this solid partnership. His recruitment and hiring or Cammi Granato; he might not have known it but he is a Seattle guy. He fits in so well with what we’re trying to do here.”

There are obstacles to overcome. While other teams have their own databases and scouting reports to draw from, Seattle is starting from scratch. The upside is being able to put it together in a system and format that fits exactly what works for Mandrycky and Francis.

”It’s nice from that perspective but then you start thinking about everything that has to be done and it’s a little bit daunting,” Mandrycky said. ”But that’s why we’re looking to hire a really good team to build that together.”

And again, there is time. Seattle is still 20 months from the expansion draft.

”What’s the most precious commodity we have right now? Time,’ Olczyk said. ”Take advantage of it.”

POWER PLAY ONLY

Enjoyable as it might be to hold an NHL record just 15 games into his professional career, Sabres forward Victor Olofsson would prefer not to be typecast as a power-play specialist.

”It’s a little mixed emotions,” said Olofsson, who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to finally score in an even-strength situation.

The 24-year-old Swede extended the league record last week in becoming the first player to score his first eight career goals on the power play. Olofsson is now two ahead of the previous mark shared by three players.

Olofsson and Edmonton’s James Neal are tied for the NHL lead with six power-play goals, and he’s part of a Sabres power-play unit that leads the league with 11 goals through Monday.

Olofsson would like to see his production translate into 5-on-5 situations, considering he’s playing on Buffalo’s top line alongside captain Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

”Sometimes you get put in tough spots out there even on the power play and you have to solve different situations and I think I kind of learned a lot from that,” Olofsson said. ”And I can take that into my 5-on-5 game as well.”

REACHING 1,500

Patrick Marleau is in line to play his 1,500th game with San Jose on Friday when the Sharks face his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

”It’s kind of weird how things happen,” Marleau said, as the Sharks prepared to open a five-game road trip at Buffalo on Tuesday.

Marleau spent his first 19 seasons with the Sharks, before signing with Toronto in 2017. He spent two years with the Maple Leafs before being a salary-cap castoff in June, when Toronto traded him to Carolina.

He was the odd man out in the Leafs’ bid to re-sign restricted free agent Mitchell Marner, one of the players Marleau helped mentor.

”Yeah, no better person to do it for,” Marleau said with a laugh, noting he bears no hard feelings for the Maple Leafs.

The Hurricanes bought out the final year of his contract and the 40-year-old signed with San Jose on Oct. 9.

Winter Classic Memories: Syvret’s first NHL goal comes at Fenway Park

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Every Tuesday in December we’ll be looking back at some Winter Classic memories as we approach the 2020 game on Jan. 1 between the Stars and Predators from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

Danny Syvret was cautious not to get too confident about potentially being in the Philadelphia Flyers’ lineup for the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. The 2005 third-round pick had spent most of his professional career playing in the American Hockey League, but an opportunity arose that had him eyeing playing in that year’s outdoor game.

By the 2009-10 season, Syvret had only played in 28 NHL games. He found himself up and down between the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Adirondack, and when Ryan Parent was injured a few days before New Year’s Day playing in the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins took a big step towards reality. 

But due to life as a regular call up, Syvret wasn’t allowing himself to believe he was going to play. At least not yet. His parents flew in last-minute just in case he was given the opportunity. Yet it wasn’t until the Flyers’ New Year’s Eve practice when he took regular line rushes that belief started to take hold.

Aside from hoping to lock down a regular roster spot on the Flyers, Syvret was also carrying an NHL goalless drought. A scorer during his junior days with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights and the previous season in the AHL when he popped in 12 goals, he had gone 43 NHL games without a goal.

As much as Syvret was focused on staying in the NHL, the drought was definitely on his mind.

“You’re an offensive guy in junior and an offensive guy in the minors and you want to transition that into your NHL game,” Syvret told NBC Sports recently. “And when you’re sitting with a goose egg, it just doesn’t look good. One goal is not much different, but when you’re looking at zero to one versus 12 to 13, it’s a big jump. 

“It weighed on me a little bit, but it’s not like I was trying to go out and score. I wasn’t changing my game. I knew I had to have some sort of offensive output or else my chances to play in the NHL were slowly going to diminish on me.”

While Syvret had a lot on his mind, one person was feeling good about what might happen in the game. The day before the 2010 Winter Classic, Syvret’s friend, NHL photographer Dave Sandford, predicted his pal would break that goose egg the next day on the Fenway Park ice.

Sandford, who took the above photo after the game, would turn out to be prophetic.

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette included Syvret was in the Flyers’ lineup for the game. Now that he no longer had to wonder about playing, the then 24-year-old made sure to enjoy as much of the experience as possible — from the walk out of the dugout to the scenic view inside the historic baseball stadium to the Stealth Bomber flyover as the teams waited for puck drop in front of 38,112 fans.

Once the game began it was all business, and Syvret would soon add to memories by opening the scoring early in the second period.

Syvret’s first NHL goal nearly came moments before he twirled and fired from the faceoff circle to beat Tim Thomas. As a rebound from a Jeff Carter shot came out to the side boards, the left-handed shot defenseman, who made sure to shoot around an incoming Marc Savard otherwise a three-on-one was likely going the other way, fired a blast that was denied with a two-pad stack from the Bruins netminder.

Why was Thomas down on the ice? Well, Scott Hartnell being Scott Hartnell crashed the net and bumped into Thomas. As the puck squirted out to the circle, which was retrieved by Syvret, Thomas then decided to exact some revenge on the Flyers forward by giving Hartnell a shove. 

The only problem for Thomas was that at that same time Syvret was turning and whipping the puck on target, which would end up in the back of the net for a 1-0 Flyers lead.

“[The first shot] would have been a prettier goal if I would have elevated it a little more so Thomas didn’t make the two-pad stack,” said Syvret, who became the first NHL player to score his first goal in an outdoor game. “But a goal is a goal.”

Syvret had no idea about the Hartnell/Thomas commotion in front and was hoping for a deflection or rebound as he turned and fired the puck. He didn’t even realize Thomas was down on the ice until he saw a replay following the game, which the Bruins would win in in overtime, 2-1.

The goal drought was over and a short-lived streak was about to be born. Two games later Syvret would record his second career NHL goal with a laser during a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That was a pretty one. I wish that would have been my first one,” Syvret said with a laugh.

A separated shoulder ended Syvret’s season three games later and he would play only 10 more NHL games in his career. After several years in the AHL, he finished as a professional playing parts of two seasons in Germany. 

Today Syvret works as a financial advisor with Canada Life and will be starting up his own firm in 2020. He also has gotten into coaching youth hockey with former NHLer Jason Williams. The pair lead the AAA Elgin Middlesex Chiefs in Ontario with a team full of OHL hopefuls.

Two years after Syvret’s first NHL goal, another Flyer would record his first outdoors when Brayden Schenn, like Syvret, opened the scoring for the Flyers by beating New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at Citizen Bank Park during the 2012 Winter Classic.

Almost a decade later, the memories are still there for Syvret, whose first goal holds extra special meaning for him.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play World Juniors, Memorial Cup, and obviously your first NHL game is big,” Syvret said, “but for me, that was probably the biggest NHL game for me because one, it’s outdoor, and two, I scored my first ever goal. 

“Forever I’ll remember playing at Fenway.”

NBC will air the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, at 2 p.m. ET.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars fire head coach Jim Montgomery ‘due to unprofessional conduct’

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The Dallas Stars made a stunning announcement on Tuesday by firing head coach Jim Montgomery “due to unprofessional conduct.”

Here’s the statement from Stars general manager Jim Nill:

“The Dallas Stars expect all of our employees to act with integrity and exhibit professional behavior while working for and representing our organization. This decision was made due to unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.”

Nill said during a Tuesday morning press conference that the reason behind the firing was not related to the abuse allegations issues that have come up in hockey and was not in reaction to the four-point plan announced by the NHL during the Board of Governors meeting on Monday. He also added that no current or former Stars players or employees were involved in the “act of unprofessionalism.”

“We approve [of] the NHL in creating this four-point initiative, their plan, but this decision was made before that initiative came out,” said Nill, who noted he had been in contact with the league. “There’s no connection between the two.”

Nill, who said he found out Sunday after receiving a phone call from someone he would not name, wouldn’t divulge details as to what happened with Montgomery, but did say it was not a criminal act and there will be no criminal investigation; it was all done internally.

Montgomery, who has two more years left on his contract, was hired in May 2018 and compiled a 60-43-10 record in parts of two seasons.

Assistant coach Rick Bowness, who was a head coach for five NHL franchises between 1988 and 2003 and was hired as Montgomery’s assistant in June 2018, will take over the role of interim head coach for the rest of the season. Derek Laxdal, who has been serving as head coach of the Stars’ AHL affiliate, will be added to Bowness’ staff.

The Stars currently sit in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and are only five points out of first place in the Central Division.

“[The players] were very surprised,” Nill said. “I spoke to the team today and they’re very surprised, but we’re very fortunate. We have a good team, we’ve got great leadership and they’re going to get over this. The coaching staff does a great job and they’re going to get over this. It’s a bump in the road and they’re going to digest this and we’ll more forward and go from there.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Eichel looks to keep points streak going vs. Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Before the season Jack Eichel talked about the Sabres needing to have consistency, night in and night out, in order to bounce back from a 2018-19 campaign that ended in ugly fashion after beginning so successfully.

The Sabres are still in search of consistency having dropped 13 of their last 19 games after beginning the season 9-2-1. While his teammates have had their struggles, Eichel hasn’t, and has been the most consistent and reliable of any of his Buffalo teammates.

Through 31 games Eichel leads the team with 18 goals and 42 points. He’s currently on pace for 48 goals and 111 points, which is territory a Sabres player has not reached since 1992-93 when Pat LaFontaine and Alex Mogilny had seasons to remember.

Eichel enters Tuesday’s game against the Blues on a 13-game points streak, the longest of his career, and has gone consecutive games without recording a goal or an assist only twice this season. Tim Connolly holds the Sabres franchise record having picked up a point in 16 straight games during the 2009-10 season.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-SABRES BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

A year ago Eichel hit career highs with 28 goals and 82 points and feels the pressure as captain to lead a turnaround in the Queen City.

“I think it is almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel, the NHL’s Third Star of the Week, told NBC Sports before the season. “I think with the drought our franchise has been in and the ups and downs we’ve went through and being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressured to perform and bring success to Buffalo. It can be tough at times for sure, but sometimes it brings out the best of you and brings out that competitive side.”

How much of an influence has Eichel’s offensive prowess meant to the Sabres? Half of his 42 points have helped the team tie or take the lead.

“I think more than anything he’s now a leader who understands that sometimes it’s quality over quantity, and he can still concentrate on his game,” said head coach Ralph Krueger. “He’s just been a very natural captain, he’s enjoying it, he’s communicating in a really good, consistent way and he’s very positive in his influence on the team whether we’ve had a good day or a bad, and that’s what we need to continue.”

What’s working for Eichel? It’s the quality of shots he’s taking, not the quantity. His shots per game average is slightly down this season (3.58) from his career average (3.62) and from last season (3.98). The shots are going in as his shooting percentage has risen to 16.2% this season compared to 9.2% in 2018-19.

“I’ve been kind of shooting low,” Eichel said last week via the Sabres website. “I feel like in the past, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and just passed them by just missing the net. … You try and go high and miss the net, you don’t give yourself a chance to score or maybe someone else a chance to score. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Just trying to shoot different places, I think, and knowing that sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you get it off. It’s just about surprising the goalie.”

Kathryn Tappen will host Tuesday night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Ovechkin on Russia Olympic ban; tough times in Hockeytown

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Alex Ovechkin on the Russia Olympic ban: “It’s always disappointing to hear something like that. I hope everything’s going to be well. We still have a long time ‘til the Olympics to figure out what to do. What’s better to do. Hope everything’s going to be fine.” [Washington Post]

• USA Hockey named on Monday 28 players to the preliminary roster of its entry for the 2020 World Junior Championship. [USA Hockey]

• As the Senators continue their rebuild, Brady Tkachuk is front and center. [Ottawa Sun]

• Does Taylor Hall fit with the Islanders’ needs? [Gotham Sports Network]

• Things are going not so good in Hockeytown. [TSN]

• The proposed reshaping of the NBA schedule is something the NHL should be thinking about as well. [Featurd]

• Jordan Kyrou, who’s been nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL this season, has been called up by the St. Louis Blues. [Post-Dispatch]

• How a small dip in production for Claude Giroux means good things for the Flyers. [Broad Street Hockey]

• Neal Henderson, head of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, will become the first African-American to be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week. [NHL.com]

• Can the Lightning’s issues this season be placed at the feet of Jon Cooper? [Raw Charge]

• Finally, meet Evan Yasser, a Devils fan on the autism spectrum who you might hear calling games some day:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.