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

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.