SEATTLE — Now that he is a couple months into the job, Ron Francis has gained a little more appreciation for the task he signed up for.
The easy decision for the 56-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer would have been to take a consulting or scouting gig, keep his family settled in North Carolina and avoided the kind of challenge that may eventually define his post-playing career.
“It’s not every day you get to build something from scratch, especially in professional sports,” said Francis, the general manager of Seattle’s expansion NHL franchise. “You’ve got a blank canvas, you have the opportunity to build it, create your own culture how you want things to run.”
Early, but Vital Time for Seattle
Francis is in the infancy of his tenure as Seattle’s GM. He was hired in July, more than two years before Seattle will play its first NHL game. For now, Seattle’s hockey brain trust consists primarily of three people: Francis, assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk and director of hockey administration Alexandra Mandrycky. Time is the greatest commodity they have, 24 months before the yet-to-be-named franchise takes the ice for a game that counts. They know that time will disappear rapidly.
“I think for us the biggest thing is not jumping into any sort of rash decisions,” Francis said. “We have some time, let’s make sure we look at it from all the angles and make sure we’re thorough in our approach as we build things out.”
It was a calculated move by Seattle to put together its front office so far ahead of ever playing a game. Long before a team nickname, a naming rights deal for its arena or even a coach is considered, Seattle’s ownership decided it wanted its hockey operations staff to be the first significant moves. They wanted Francis, Olczyk and Mandrycky to have as much time as needed to put together Seattle’s first roster.
That means a significant amount of time for all three at this point is gathering information. They’re building a database from scratch. Mandrycky is responsible for developing the analytics Seattle will use in its evaluations. Olczyk handles contracts and the salary cap, and will be responsible for monitoring all the player movement that is likely to take place over the next 18 months and will eventually create the player pool Seattle will pick from.
Francis is watching over it all, building out the infrastructure of the front office while also putting together who will run Seattle’s AHL franchise in Palm Springs. Francis finalized his pro scouting staff last month — including the hiring of Cammi Granato as only female pro scout currently in the league — and his schedule for the upcoming season will take him all over North America and to Europe.
“There are some surprising parts of him,” team President and CEO Tod Leiweke said. “He’s very much an innovator, fully embracing technology. We were the first team to hire a woman to lead our analytics and he and Alex have just built this solid partnership. His recruitment and hiring or Cammi Granato; he might not have known it but he is a Seattle guy. He fits in so well with what we’re trying to do here.”
Obstacles to Overcome
There are obstacles to overcome. While other teams have their own databases and scouting reports to draw from, Seattle is starting from scratch. The upside is being able to put it together in a system and format that fits exactly what works for Mandrycky and Francis.
“It’s nice from that perspective but then you start thinking about everything that has to be done and it’s a little bit daunting,” Mandrycky said. “But that’s why we’re looking to hire a really good team to build that together.”
And again, there is time. Seattle is still 20 months from the expansion draft.
“What’s the most precious commodity we have right now? Time,’ Olczyk said. “Take advantage of it.”
Power Play Only
Enjoyable as it might be to hold an NHL record just 15 games into his professional career, Sabres forward Victor Olofsson would prefer not to be typecast as a power-play specialist.
“It’s a little mixed emotions,” said Olofsson, who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to finally score in an even-strength situation.
The 24-year-old Swede extended the league record last week in becoming the first player to score his first eight career goals on the power play. Olofsson is now two ahead of the previous mark shared by three players.
Olofsson and Edmonton’s James Neal are tied for the NHL lead with six power-play goals, and he’s part of a Sabres power-play unit that leads the league with 11 goals through Monday.
Olofsson would like to see his production translate into 5-on-5 situations, considering he’s playing on Buffalo’s top line alongside captain Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
“Sometimes you get put in tough spots out there even on the power play and you have to solve different situations and I think I kind of learned a lot from that,” Olofsson said. “And I can take that into my 5-on-5 game as well.”
Patrick Marleau is in line to play his 1,500th game with San Jose on Friday when the Sharks face his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s kind of weird how things happen,” Marleau said, as the Sharks prepared to open a five-game road trip at Buffalo on Tuesday.
Marleau spent his first 19 seasons with the Sharks, before signing with Toronto in 2017. He spent two years with the Maple Leafs before being a salary-cap castoff in June, when Toronto traded him to Carolina.
He was the odd man out in the Leafs’ bid to re-sign restricted free agent Mitchell Marner, one of the players Marleau helped mentor.
“Yeah, no better person to do it for,” Marleau said with a laugh, noting he bears no hard feelings for the Maple Leafs.
The Hurricanes bought out the final year of his contract and the 40-year-old signed with San Jose on Oct. 9.
Leaders (through Monday)
Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) 9; Assists: John Carlson (Washington) 15; Points: Carlson 18; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas) 6; Goals-against average: Carter Hutton (Buffalo) 1.39.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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Tim Booth, The Associated Press