The business side of Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise has been in full swing for a while, from the hiring of CEO Tod Leiweke to commencing the reconstruction of the Seattle Center Arena. The most exciting part of the process, however, is always the hockey part. Seattle got it started when it hired analytics expert Alexandra Mandrycky as director of hockey administration. This week, the hockey work kicks into overdrive. As first reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Seattle is expected to announce Hall of Famer Ron Francis at its first GM.
The decision is likely to evoke two responses. On one hand, Francis makes plenty of sense as a figurehead hiring. He’s one of the most respected hockey players ever. He was known for his class, winning three Lady Byng Trophies. He ranks second in NHL history in assists, fourth in games and fifth in points. He’s one of the best ever to do it, he brings brand-name glamor to the GM position, and he’s well-liked across the league. From a public-relations standpoint, Francis is a home-run hire.
“It’s a great choice for an expansion franchise,” said an NHL team executive. “It gives them instant credibility by adding a first-class guy that knows all sides of the game and quietly did a great job starting the turnaround in Carolina.”
That’s the optimistic response to the Francis hiring. The other possible response: questioning whether his GM resume earned him the gig and whether he did enough to spark the turnaround when he was GM in Carolina. He spent four years in charge of the Hurricanes and never got them to a playoff spot. Their best finish during his tenure, from 2014-15 to 2017-18, was sixth in the Metropolitan Division. They never topped 87 points. So why is Seattle tasking Francis with shepherding its new franchise? Well, Francis’ time with Carolina can’t merely be defined by the standings. We have to consider what he did accomplish – and what resources he had to work with.
Francis had control of the Canes’ hockey decisions for four drafts: 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, as he was demoted from the GM role before the end of the 2017-18 season. Under Francis’ watch, the Canes scored what might go down as the steal of the 2015 draft with Sebastian Aho at 35th overall. He has the fifth-most points in that outstanding draft class, trailing only Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner and Mikko Rantanen, and of the top 18 scorers from that draft, Aho is the only player not chosen in the first round. Francis also took blueliner Noah Hanifin fifth overall in that draft and, while he’s no longer a Hurricane, he was playing in an All-Star Game by 21 and was used in a trade (post-Francis era) that netted Carolina Dougie Hamilton.
Some of Francis’ other high-profile selections, from Martin Necas to Jake Bean to Haydn Fleury to Alex Nedeljkovic, haven’t panned out yet, but all are still young enough to blossom, especially the dynamic center Necas, chosen 12th overall in 2017. The Canes mined a useful NHL-caliber checker in Warren Foegele 67th overall in 2014, too.
“You look at the success that Carolina is starting to have, and a lot of that groundwork was Ron Francis,” said another NHL team executive. “He’s been in a similar situation having rebuilt Carolina, and they’ve had success now because of that. He’s very conscientious, very professional, knows players well, and he’s a good GM. He’ll do a good job (in Seattle).
The Francis era does include some whiffs at the podium, most notoriously Julien Gauthier at 21st overall in 2016, but even he made major strides in the AHL this past season as a power forward and might be a late bloomer. Bottom line: it’s too early to fully evaluate Francis’ draft work, but so far we can say he was average or better.
Francis has a strong track record as a trader. He did a good job selling off veterans for picks, from Andrej Sekera to Ron Hainsey. Francis’ first trade as Hurricanes GM came in December of 2014, and in the three drafts that ensued, he picked 26 times, meaning he scored an extra five picks. He stole Teuvo Teravainen from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016 in exchange for surrendering a second- and third-round pick and eating Bryan Bickell’s contract.
You can’t win every trade, of course. The downfall of the Francis era was the Scott Darling trade with Chicago in 2017. The Hurricanes, desperate to shore up their goaltending with long-time starter Cam Ward exiting his prime, gambled on an excellent backup with a small sample size, immediately signing Darling to a four-year contract at a $4.15-million cap hit. Darling flopped spectacularly, posting an .888 save percentage across 43 games. If any move cost Francis his job, that was it. The Hurricanes traded Darling to Florida this off-season for buyout purposes.
Still, the shrewd moves outweighed the bad during Francis era, and it’s important to remember he operated almost entirely before the arrival of owner Tom Dundon, whose pockets are so deep that he publicly scoffed at the idea he couldn’t have forked over $21 million to match the Montreal Canadiens’ offer sheet for Aho this summer. Francis was removed from his GM post less than two months after Dundon took over as majority owner of the Canes. Their cap expenditures for 2019-20 sit at a healthy $76.9 million, with RFA Brock McGinn still unsigned. Francis had to operate under much leaner budgets in his four seasons – typically just north or south of $60 million, at or near the bottom of the NHL in cap spending. He thus never had the luxury of pursuing big-ticket UFAs. The most lucrative open-market UFA contract Francis handed out during his tenure was Darling’s.
Francis’ wallet should increase significantly in elasticity once he assumes control of Seattle. People don’t pay a $650-million expansion fee to pinch pennies. Under owner Bill Foley, the Vegas Golden Knights paid $500 million to join the league and, as of this summer, they’re spending so tight to the cap that they’ve had to ship out good players such as defenseman Colin Miller. We can expect Seattle to spend just as aggressively, not just because it wants to deliver a winner, but because it might take on some bad contracts from desperate teams during the wheelings and dealings before the expansion draft. Francis will have cash as a weapon for multiple uses.
So while Francis’ past GM work wasn’t exemplary, it also wasn’t bad, and he was doing it with a hand tied behind his back. Now, he’ll have the best financial flexibility of his GM career coupled with a strong personal reputation across the league. Don’t be surprised if he succeeds.
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