Ron Francis

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.

Seattle hires Cammi Granato as NHL’s first female pro scout

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Seattle’s NHL expansion team made some history on Wednesday, as they named Cammi Granato as the league’s first female pro scout.

Granato, 48, was announced along with four other scouts, including some other familiar names: Ulf Samuelsson, Stu Barnes, Dave Hunter, and John Goodwin. This continues a standout hockey career for Granato, who captained the gold-medal winning U.S. women’s team during the 1998 Winter Olympics, and was eventually inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.

This continues a small-but-promising trend of NHL teams adding diversity to their front offices. Seattle already made strides in that regard, making Alexandra Mandrycky such a prominent hire (under the title “director of hockey administration”) that they actually brought Mandrycky on board before selecting Ron Francis as GM.

“What a time in sports right now, seeing all sorts of ceilings shattered by women,” Granato told Bob Condor of the Seattle expansion team’s website. “If I can inspire someone to become a scout or work in an NHL front office, that’s amazing.”

While the first reaction is “What took so long?,” it remains a promising trend, and savvy teams stand to earn a significant competitive advantage by expanding their view to a wider range or qualified candidates. The Toronto Maple Leafs are another team that stands out in this regard with their hire of Hayley Wickenheiser back in 2018.

(The San Jose Sharks were ahead of their time in hiring Deborah Wright as a part-time amateur scout back in 1992, although it doesn’t look like that lasted long.)

It sure seems like Granato has grown up surrounded by hockey people. Her brother Tony Granato had a memorable NHL career, and is currently coaching the University of Wisconsin’s men’s team. Her husband Ray Ferraro also had a noteworthy NHL career, and now serves as a fantastic television analyst, while Cammi’s other brother Don is an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres.

“Don has been my primary mentor over the years,” Cammi Granato said, via Condor. “I feel like I can ask him anything about the game and get great advice. Of course, I talk with Tony and Ray too.”

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Cammi Granato served as a mentor and inspiration for other people who dream of finding a job in the NHL, even if it means blazing a new trail or shattering a ceiling or two.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ron Francis has big hopes as GM of Seattle’s new NHL club

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SEATTLE — Ron Francis has all kinds of eye-popping statistics attached to his Hall of Fame career. He averaged more than point a game, is second in NHL history in assists behind Wayne Gretzky and fifth in career points.

When CEO Tod Leiweke and the ownership group of the Seattle NHL expansion team looked at his playing resume, though, they were most impressed by another statistic: Francis was voted captain by three teams for 14 of his 23 years, first earning the role at age 21.

That leadership ability spurred them to hire Francis on Thursday as general manager of the yet-to-be-named team – well ahead of their schedule.

”Ownership made an incredible commitment . in supporting this idea of let’s do this a year early,” Leiweke said. ”If we’re really here working for our fans, let’s reward their belief. They said we’re willing to make this commitment a year early. We’re willing to bring on a general manager earlier than any other expansion team in the history of the NHL and that gift of an additional year will serve us well and give us a chance to scout and build and plan. But we had to find the right person.”

They believe the 56-year-old Francis is that person, announcing his hiring at a news conference that was attended by the mayor and a state senator. He’ll have complete control of building the organization under Leiweke. He said he’s already drawn up an organizational chart that will guide hiring as the team prepares to open play in 2021 as the NHL’s 32nd franchise.

And he’s already started daydreaming about how his team will look.

”I think if you look at my past experience, it’s a team that’s fast,” Francis said. ”I think it’s a team that needs to have skill and hockey sense. I like a team that’s extremely competitive. And for me I think you need a team that has character. It’s easy to be a good person when things are going well. When things get a little bit tough, that’s when character rises to the top and pulls you through those tough times.”

Character defined Francis’ playing career. Jaromir Jagr, his teammate on the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, called Francis perhaps the most underrated player in NHL history. After starting his career as the No. 4 overall pick in the 1981 draft for the Hartford Whalers, he played for the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to the Whalers in 1998 after they moved to Carolina.

He guided that team to the NHL finals before retiring. He joined the Hurricanes’ front office and worked through a number of jobs under Hall of Fame GM Jim Rutherford, including assistant GM and associate head coach. He was promoted to GM in 2014 when Rutherford left for Pittsburgh and held that position until an ownership change in 2018, a year before Carolina played in the finals.

Francis said he was depressed after leaving the Hurricanes, but found his drive again while working at the Spengler Cup and with Hockey Canada during last year’s world championships.

”Getting around the NHL players again, the NHL coaches and stuff, the passion started burning again and I thought, ‘OK this is really where I want to be,”’ Francis said. ”And when Tod called, I looked at the opportunity and said, ‘What a great chance.’ We get to build it from the ground up. We get to establish our culture and how we want to do it. I think it’s a unique opportunity. It doesn’t happen every day.”

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

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Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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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.