Ron Francis was hired to be the general manager of the Seattle Kraken on July 18th, 2019. The role, building a professional sports franchise from literally nothing, is unlike any other position in sport. He doesn’t get to blame the last guy. Nor does he have cupboards full of high picks or promising prospects, though they may come. All Francis has is a clean slate, the freedom to fill each supporting role, and the hopes of a city on his back. But while the Kraken’s story is just beginning, their GM’s stretches back four decades.
In his new role with the Kraken, Francis needs to produce a Cup contender for the city of Seattle. When he was selected fourth overall by the Hartford Whalers in 1981, he instantly became one of the team’s main producers and leaders. Named captain at only 22, he was one of the youngest in NHL history at the time. Francis produced at above a point-per-game pace throughout most of his NHL career, whether playing with highly-skilled, championship-calibre rosters, or with rebuilding or expansion teams; he put up points, regardless of his circumstances.
Francis Was Always Great, But Not Always Appreciated
He’s known troubles, stripped of his captaincy after a dispute with the coach, (from ‘Whalers Coach Removes Francis as Team Captain,’ Buffalo News, 12/08/1990), and he’s known successes, capturing two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and five separate individual awards over his career. His No. 10 was retired by the Carolina Hurricanes (and by extension the Whalers) and he’s deserving of similar treatment in Pittsburgh. He ranks second in NHL history in assists, behind only the great Wayne Gretzky, and fourth in games played.
Finding success playing alongside superstars like Mario Lemieux or Jaromír Jágr is not as easy as it might seem. You need to recognize how the stars play with the puck so that while the attention is on them, you can move into the right spot to receive a pass, or put it where they’re going to be. Francis understood this, and the game of hockey as a whole, in a way most other general managers can only hope to emulate. You can see it in the pieces he put in place in Carolina to build one of the league’s up-and-coming teams.
Francis Did Well in Carolina
Francis selected Sebastian Aho in Round 2 at the 2015 Draft when 29 other GMs passed on him. Haydn Fleury (2014), Noah Hanafin (2015) and Jake Bean (2016) are other recognizable names from his years at the Hurricanes’ draft table. His final Round 1 selection for the Hurricanes, Martin Necas (2017), is also showing promise. As is so often the case, current GM Don Waddell might receive the accolades if the Hurricanes go the distance in the next season or two, but Francis’ fingerprints are all over the core of their roster.
Francis also traded for Teuvo Teravainen at the 2017 Entry Draft, a move that now looks brilliant. He made few other significant trades, preferring a slow build which likely suits an expansion franchise better.
Barring the unlikely repetition of the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season’s success, there will be little pressure on Francis to sacrifice the future for the present with the Kraken. Fans will be content, for the first season or two, with having a franchise to cheer for. It will be Francis’ job to use that grace period to his advantage.
Between the Expansion Draft and the NHL Entry Draft, player selection will be the most important part of his job as GM. Round 1 is easy, especially for a GM of a new team, simply picking the player he views as the best available. Beyond that, Francis’ eye for talent, along with the input from his scouting staff, all of whom he hired, should hopefully garner them a steal or two in the later rounds.
It Will Be a Tale of Two Drafts
The key for the Expansion Draft is selecting players whose apparent warts can be removed, by either time, training or increased opportunity, so that their underlying talents can blossom, and Francis seems to possess it. He saw something in Teravainen that the Blackhawks missed, though they’re a team that has come out on the winning side of most trades. That insight is the edge that a Hall of Famer like Francis will bring to the Kraken as he navigates the vitally important events coming up in the next calendar year.
Following the Expansion Draft, he’ll need to build depth through the Entry Draft. Aho, mentioned above, is the perfect example of Francis at work. Having obvious offensive talent, the young forward was undersized compared to other Finnish prospects of that time, but Francis spent the 33rd overall pick on him anyway and ended up having no regrets. Hopefully, Francis and his team will identify prospects with that potential and pair them with a coach that can mold them into NHL players.
The opportunity should exist to gain extra draft picks through clever negotiation during the first draft to be used in the second. Last, he’ll have to convince the ideal free agents that the Kraken are the right destination. Maximizing the return on those picks and signings could mean the difference between a couple of seasons of build-up or a decade of darkness. So far, the Seattle franchise hasn’t made many missteps. Let’s hope they can continue that trend.