As an NHL player, Ron Francis played 1,616 more games than George McPhee did. He outscored McPhee by 525 goals, 1,224 assists and 1,541 points. He won two more Stanley Cups, one more Selke Trophy, three more Lady Byng Trophies, one more King Clancy Award and he has one more induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
As the GM of an expansion team, there’s no chance Francis’ portfolio will be that much fatter than McPhee’s. In fact, he’ll almost certainly be chasing McPhee when it comes to the quality of the product he puts on the ice and what that product accomplishes. Congratulations, Ron Francis. You just signed up for the most difficult job in hockey.
The fact is, McPhee’s brilliant approach to building the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and the way his fellow GMs responded to losing players under the most favorable expansion rules in the history of the game conspired to set a template for an expansion team that will be almost impossible to repeat. And in that sense, perhaps Francis’ most important job will be to temper the expectations of hockey fans in Seattle. Anything is possible, but Francis might want to point out that there’s a pretty good chance this team won’t get to the Stanley Cup final in Year 1 of its existence.
That’s because, if they learned anything from the Vegas experience, GMs will not be near as shortsighted when it comes to the prospect of losing a roster player in the summer of 2021 as they were four years previous to that. In the summer of 2017, they were so concerned about losing an impact player that they made a flurry of deals that blew up in their faces and put the Golden Knights on a path that not only made them the most successful expansion team in professional sports history, but continues to pave the way for their emergence as a truly elite, Stanley Cup-contending team for years to come.
McPhee successfully manipulated the process and his peers to produce both a competitive roster and a deep system, one he has leveraged time and again to bolster the roster. Look at the lineage when it comes to the acquisitions of the likes of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty and they lead right back to the embarrassment of riches McPhee compiled because of the expansion draft.
The Golden Knights ended up with three first-round picks in 2017 because the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets wanted Vegas to pick certain players off their protected list. The only one of those players who actually ended up playing for them was William Karlsson, who went on to score 67 goals in his first two seasons in Vegas. With those picks, they took Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom, prospects McPhee leveraged in the deals to get Pacioretty and Stone. In return for not touching any of their defensemen, the Minnesota Wild sent Alex Tuch to Vegas in return for the Golden Knights taking Erik Haula. They got their No. 1 goalie and a second-round pick from Pittsburgh and the reward for taking Clayton Stoner from Anaheim was Shea Theodore. The Florida Panthers were willing to throw in Reilly Smith to get Vegas to take Jonathan Marchessault. They got two picks and prospect Nikita Gusev from Tampa Bay for taking Jason Garrison’s contract and burying it in the minors. They stole Nate Schmidt from the Washington Capitals. It’s actually all quite mind-boggling.
Chances are, this time around, GMs will be far more inclined to simply submit their protected lists and deal with the consequences of losing an average-to-above average player from their roster. There will be little, if any, giving away of high draft picks and promising young players in order to keep a team away from a certain roster player or for taking on cap space. You can never say never when it comes to the way GMs operate, but at least they go into the 2021 proceedings knowing that if they do try to gerrymander the process, they do so at their own peril. They obviously were not armed with that knowledge the first time around.
Like the Golden Knights, Seattle paid handsomely for the privilege of being in the NHL and should be given a puncher’s chance to compete coming out of the gate. And with the expansion rules being what they are, that is exactly what they’ll get. The Kraken or the Metropolitans or the Millionaires likely will be a good team, not a great one. They’ll take their lumps at times and if Francis does a good job, he will be able to build a contending team in a reasonable amount of time. They won’t be the Golden Knights 2.0 because they won’t have the chance or the template for that kind of success.
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