By Andy Eide
NHL Seattle appears to have its man. The news started to break Tuesday afternoon that hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis is going to be named the first general manager of Seattle’s expansion franchise.
Francis’ resume on the ice is well documented. He was selected fourth overall by the Hartford Whalers in the 1981 NHL Draft and would go on to star for 22 years in the league. After starting with the Whalers, he would go on to win two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins and later play six seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes before finishing his career with a 12-game stint with Toronto in 2004. When he retired he was fifth all time in points with 1,2449, played in 1731 games, and scored 549 goals.
The organization itself is declining to comment, but there is word tonight that Seattle’s NHL expansion team is closing in on naming Ron Francis as its first GM. We’ll see how events unfold the next few days; things have been percolating the last few weeks.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) July 17, 2019
Impressive numbers indeed but Seattle isn’t bringing him in to play. Seattle is handing him the keys to the franchise, which begins its inaugural season in 2021.
Francis, 56, comes to the Northwest with experience as an NHL general manager. Hired by the Hurricanes in 2014, he would guide Carolina for four seasons before being leaving the organization in 2018.
None of Francis’ Carolina teams qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he wasn’t able to earn more than 36 wins in any season. On the surface that seems troubling but to judge his tenure in Carolina solely on wins and losses would be selling the job he did short.
The Hurricanes were a great story in the NHL this past season as they made a splash with their Storm Surge post-game celebrations and their surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Francis’ fingerprints are all over the Hurricanes.
No general manager has a perfect track record and Francis is no different. Here is a look at some of the hits and misses from his time in Carolina.
The biggest positives on Francis’ ledger with Carolina is the job he did drafting young talent. Highlighted by the second-round choice of Sebastian Aho in 2015, he stockpiled many young players.
His first draft was in 2014 and he selected Red Deer Rebels defenseman Haydn Fleury with the seventh overall pick. Fleury has played 87 games in the NHL with Carolina but split time last year with the Hurricanes and the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. In the fourth round of that draft he picked up center Lucas Wallmark who has played 100 NHL games for Carolina, including 81 this past season, where he scored 10 goals and 28 points.
Francis would strike gold in 2015’s draft. Coming into the draft, Aho wasn’t considered to be a high pick and most prognosticators predicted he would go anywhere from pick 60 into the 100’s. Francis took him at 35. Aho proved Francis right by scoring 24 goals his rookie season in 2016-2017. He is coming off his best year (30g-53a-83p) and at 21-years-old, is considered one of the league’s top players.
2015 also saw Francis select Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin with the fifth pick of the first round. Hanifin would jump straight to the NHL in 2015-2016 and go on to play 239 games with the Hurricanes. He would be one of the key pieces to last summer’s trade – along with Elias Lindholm – with the Calgary Flames that brought back Dougie Hamilton and Michael Ferland – who both played big roles in the Hurricanes turnaround. That trade happened after Francis was out as general manager, but he was responsible for bringing in one of the assets that made the trade possible.
It’s still too early to accurately judge how Francis did with the 2016 and 2017 drafts as those players are young and just beginning pro careers.
The early results are promising.
Six of his picks over those two drafts were part of the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers squad that won the Calder Cup this spring. That includes 2017 first-rounder – and 12th pick overall – Martin Necas. The Czech center, 20, was third in scoring for the Checkers during his rookie season in 2018-2019. Defenseman Jake Bean, who Francis nabbed with his first pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, was 12th in AHL rookie scoring last year with 13 goals, 31 assists for 44 points. Bean is 21-years-old and knocking on the NHL door.
Other notable picks that played a key role in the Checkers’ championship run last year include Julien Gauthier, who was selected in the first round of 2016’s draft and scored 27 times. Janne Kuokkanen (2016 second-round pick) and Nicolas Roy (2016 fourth-round pick) contributed in Charlotte as did former Tri-City Americans star Morgan Geekie (2017 third-round pick). All six guys were among Charlotte’s top-ten scorers last year.
Francis’ trade history
With Carolina, Francis was anything but an active trader. He chose to build through the draft and didn’t make significant player-for-player moves. He did get an extra first-round pick in 2016 through a trade with Los Angeles that allowed him to select Gauthier.
His best move was a 2016 trade that saw Francis send a second and third-round pick to Chicago for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell. The big get was Teravainen, who was 21 at the time and had already played two seasons in the NHL. With the Hurricanes, the Finnish forward has back-to-back 20-plus goal seasons and trailed only Aho in team scoring last year. Francis had previously accumulated the draft picks which allowed him to send two valuable picks to Chicago to make the deal work.
The biggest blemish on Francis’ Carolina ledger is his 2017 move to bring in goalie Scott Darling from the Blackhawks in exchange for a third-round draft pick.
Francis and the Hurricanes were coming off a 2016-2017 campaign that saw them allow 230 goals. The 170 they allowed while at five-on-five was tied for second most in the NHL that year and as a team, the Hurricanes were fourth worst in save-percentage (.901).
Darling had made a splash the season before in Chicago, where in relief of Corey Crawford, he posted a stellar .924 save-percentage. Once in Carolina, Francis inked him to a four-year contract that cost $4.1 million against the Hurricanes cap with hopes he would become a number one goalie.
Things didn’t go well.
In his first season with Carolina, Darling recorded a goals-against average over three and a paltry save-percentage of .884. He appeared in eight games this past season before being sent down to Charlotte and would eventually be left off the Checkers playoff roster.
#Hurricanes' Scott Darling gives up a huge rebound, but stretches to rob #CBJackets' Anderson. pic.twitter.com/mKD52Lu12L
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 17, 2017
Goaltending would end up being the Achilles Heel for Francis in Carolina.
He was never able to find a consistent guy in net, and it was costly. In his four seasons, the Hurricanes never climbed above the fourth worst save-percentage in the league and in 2017-2018 finished last with a .893 team percentage.
With most of his recent draft picks just beginning to scratch at the surface, the only grade to give Francis is one of incomplete.
We don’t know yet how players like Necas, Gauthier, and Bean will turn out once they hit the NHL but they could end up being a core group that keeps the Hurricanes in contention for years to come. While Francis amassed a stable of young and promising players, the goaltending was an issue. Despite that, his teams were solid possession clubs during his tenure. His last team, in 2017-2018, led the NHL in Corsi at 55.17% according to Natural Stat Trick.
Francis was let go by Carolina owner Tom Dundon, in large part because the rebuild wasn’t happening fast enough to please the boss. The lack of a goalie, big trades, and missing the playoffs were ultimately what led him to part ways, but the sense is that he won’t be shackled in Seattle by ownership and as an expansion team, will have some leash to work with.
This is a big hire for NHL Seattle. He gives the franchise instant credibility and comes with a Hall of Fame pedigree. By hiring him now, he, and the club have two full seasons to assemble a hockey operations staff, scouts, and coaches.