By Andy Eide
SEATTLE — Thursday was a long day for new NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis. It started with a press event at the KEXP Gathering Space and was followed by a string of live television and radio interviews from across the United States and Canada. His evening ended by greeting a throng of Seattle hockey fans at the Queen Anne Beer Hall.
Long for sure, but Thursday was actually the easy part.
Now that he has the job, the hard work begins. He has a big task ahead of him as he builds a hockey team from scratch. What’s next for Francis and the Seattle expansion franchise that won’t begin play until October 2021?
He spoke Thursday about setting up an org chart for the hockey operations department and beginning to fill positions.
“I’m sure by the time I leave this press conference my inbox will be filled with a lot of resumes,” Francis said Thursday.
The next two years will be filled with a lot of analysis and scouting.
Seattle already got the ball rolling by hiring Alex Mandrycky as the team’s director of hockey administration. She has NHL experience, working with the Minnesota Wild, and is considered to be one of the top analytics people in the game. She, along with Francis, make up Seattle’s current hockey operations department.
There are more hirings coming.
“I think on the amateur and pro scouting side, that will be more a year down the road,” Francis said. “A lot of the scouting this year will be done by myself and a couple other individuals. The analytics department, I think we can start working on sooner than later because we can still pull data and get information in the meantime.”
The first responsibility that Francis faces will be the expansion draft in 2021.
“He needs to set us up for the defining moment of the expansion draft where we will pick the team in about an hour and a half,” Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said on Thursday. “We’re going to spend a lot of money that day, and we need to be ready.”
While still two years away, the expansion draft is on the mind of players and GM’s around the league. Everyone is working out who may be protected from Seattle. A contractual no-move clause requires a current player to be protected and its already becoming a sticking point in negotiations.
Recently, Vancouver Cancucks defensman Alex Edler ended a prolonged negotiation before resigning a two-year deal. The hang up was a no-move clause. Edler wanted it, the Canucks didn’t and in the end he got the clause but Vancouver got him to agree to a two-year term, making him a free agent when the expansion draft occurs.
These are the kind of decisions that Francis is keeping an eye on.
“Never too early,” Francis said. “I’ve already been looking at that. We’ll look at that and get on top of that as soon as we can.”
With the expansion draft success of the Vegas Golden Knights two seasons ago, there’s a consensus among the hockey media that the rest of the league learned a lesson. Vegas was able to swing some side deals during the expansion draft where it agreed to select players who were on bad contracts and in return, would be sent younger players via trade. Players that might otherwise have been protected.
Vegas also worked out deals where it stayed away from an unprotected player in return for draft picks or other prospects.
Will teams stay away from making side deals with Seattle? Or will the temptation of getting out from under a bad contract be enough to part with a good player?
“I would hope so,” Francis said. “I think when you look at it, sometimes GMs took some heat for that but at the end of the day, if you have a player in your lineup that you know can play and is a part of your team and you have to give up a pick that may never play in the NHL, or a prospect that may never play in the NHL, I think that’s why you do it. You keep the ones that you’re sure can play. I think there will be a lot of opportunities, whether it’s a bad contract or teams against the cap.”
After the expansion draft is over, free agency, trades and the amateur draft will be how Francis builds and keeps Seattle competitive.
Over his time as the general manager in Carolina, Francis was able to draft and collect an impressive amount of young talent. He found Sebastian Aho in the second round of the 2015 draft and his last two drafts made up the core of the AHL champion Charlotte Checkers.
Free agency gets a lot of headlines but if you don’t build through the draft, you’re going to be in trouble.
“The draft is critical,” Francis said. “You only get seven darts to throw each year. It’s tough to do and usually, you’re drafting those kids at 18 or 19 years old and it’s going to take them a year, two years, three years before you get a chance to see them play. It’s a slow process. You have to draft the right guys, but once you draft them you have to give them all the tools to develop them and give them the best opporutnity to be part of the team in the NHL.”
Two years feels like a long time on a calendar but it will go by in a flash.
Seattle could have waited a year to bring a general manager on board. Leiweke convinced the ownership group to do it a year early which will allow him, and Francis, to have extra time to build his staff, scout current NHL players, and prepare for his first draft in 2021.
Thursday was fun, but now the real work begins.