The immediate reaction when it was announced that Ron Francis would be the first GM for the yet-to-be-named Seattle NHL team should have been something along the lines of, “That sounds about right.”
Francis is a brand-name NHL personality, with a Hall of Fame playing career and a long stretch in the Carolina front office even before he became a GM. He is the textbook definition of someone who fits into the old boys’ network, knows everyone, probably has pretty collegial relationships, and all that stuff you’re looking for.
I mentioned it in the mailbag yesterday, but I think this is a pretty decent choice. It doesn’t bowl you over with its brilliance, but I can’t think of too many legitimate candidates who would have. And it’s certainly a lot better than some of the other guys who would have been on their third or fourth chances somewhere.
Yes, it didn’t work out for Francis in Carolina in certain respects, but he also wasn’t allowed to spend a ton of money, he inherited some real problems (including institutional reliance on Cam Ward), and so on. There have been some mostly fair criticisms of his drafting, but he did get Sebastian Aho in 2015, Andrei Svechnikov in 2018 looks like it’s going to work out well, and he was in on the decision-making process as AGM for guys like Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, etc. A bunch of those guys aren’t in Carolina anymore, and some went ahead of players who turned out to be much better, but you can’t say they’re not solid NHLers.
Basically, I think Francis probably did as well as he could have with the constraints placed on him by the Hurricanes’ previous ownership. That current conference finalist with an impressive young core and some of the best contracts in the league that we’re all so excited about for next season has his fingerprints all over it. As such, he’s a fine candidate for Seattle to tap because he has name recognition and it’s not like he’s Calgary-era Brian Burke.
But with that being said, it’s likely to be some pretty tough going for Francis in his new job. Sure, they’ll get the same kind of benefits Vegas did, both in terms of favorable expansion draft rules and the fact that Seattle is going to be an attractive market for free agents that quickly finds a passionate fanbase. At the same time, though, Vegas’s success is going to be hard to replicate, probably impossible.
Take the success Vegas had in the expansion draft — having teams bribe them to avoid certain players with what ended up being their entire top line, for instance — even while bungling some aspects of it. They took too many defensemen, chose the wrong guys from certain teams, etc. Because they got a bunch of really good players and certain GMs (like Chuck Fletcher, Jarmo Kekalainen and of course Dale Tallon) came off looking very, very bad, one imagines other teams will be more gun shy about wheeling and dealing with Francis, who’s arguably backed by a better decision-making team than George McPhee was.
Most NHL GMs can best be characterized as “risk averse” and the idea that another team would be able to come in and pants them is not appealing. One therefore suspects things will be a little more conservative this time around, and also that teams are perhaps a bit smarter about who they leave unprotected in the expansion draft in the first place. It’s just hard to see another Marc-Andre Fleury “face of the franchise” type being so readily available to Seattle.
Also, because Vegas was so alarmingly solid in just about every aspect of its play, and used some good luck to dominate the regular season then make the Cup Final in Year 1, expectations will be high. Remember, the broad consensus heading into the season was that Vegas would potentially be in the playoff hunt and then ultimately fall short, instead they did what they did. The chances Seattle even comes close to matching that level of success are slim to none, even if almost everything goes right for them.
One imagines, then, that a good chunk of Francis’s job will be as much about managing expectations — even if Seattle also has the stated goal of trying to compete right away — because the quality of player available to him might be diminished and, thus, so too will the chances the team is remotely playoff-competitive.
The Seattle franchise will probably feel a lot more like a traditional expansion team, probably better than those in the late ‘90s and early 2000s because of the draft rules. But Francis is coming into this with expectations raised by Vegas and GMs who will be far less willing to accommodate him.
And maybe people will hold that against Francis in the same way they do some of the shortcomings in Carolina that weren’t particularly his fault. But whether you’re running a long-time mediocrity in a non-traditional market or on the forefront of creating a brand new team in a market that has basically never had anything resembling modern hockey, that’s the job.
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