Freshly minted general manager Ron Francis spent part of his introductory news conference Thursday discussing the importance of using any afforded additional time and why he won’t immediately hire a coach for this city’s incoming NHL franchise.
“I think we’re open to hiring the right guy at the right time,’’ Francis told the assembled media members, political figures and hockey community officials at the KEXP gathering space adjacent to KeyArena’s ongoing $930 million rebuild. “But I think it’s also important for us — since we’ve got a little bit of runway here — to make sure we take our time and go through the process. There are a lot of things that can change in that profession over the next couple of years.’’
Francis, 56, has certainly learned the value of grabbing additional “runway’’ in today’s ultracompetitive NHL, where the patience level of teams and fans isn’t what it used to be. He ran out of afforded time his last GM job with the Carolina Hurricanes when a new owner pulled the plug on Francis the spring of 2018, four playoff-free seasons into a rebuilding plan the Hall of Fame former player felt he’d need at least five for.
It’s unlikely he’ll get five seasons to build a playoff team here, though Francis said in an interview following Thursday’s news conference that it shouldn’t take as long to get his plan implemented this time. For one, he added, this city’s team should get a variety of established players right away and won’t be completely rebuilding with youth like in Carolina.
“I think here we’re going to look at it in a lot of different ways,’’ Francis said. “Obviously scouting in the NHL and the American Hockey League for expansion draft players. We’re going to be scouting the amateur leagues for players that hopefully can get into our system sooner rather than later.
“And then, I think the city of Seattle has a quality of life that it can offer. The fact there’s no state income tax is going to be exciting to free agents. I’ve really been talking with this ownership group about what they want to do and how they want to keep their players and staff. Word’s going to get out that this is a very good place to play and so hopefully we can get that (team vision) accomplished sooner rather than later.’’
He should get at least three actual seasons to do that here. Though NHL Seattle did not officially release contract details, Francis is thought to have a five-year deal, the first two of which will be spent preparing for the franchise’s October 2021 launch.
And though Francis insisted multiple times he’s prepared to work with whatever resources he’s given by ownership, he did have “some conversations” on that front before taking the job. With the Hurricanes, he continuously was given one of the smallest budgets in the league to work with.
“We talked about what their vision and what their plan is,’’ he said of NHL Seattle. “And I think this team is going to be in good shape as far as being able to go out and get players — whether it’s free agents or taking on players with bigger contracts because they want to do things right.’’
And all that should save Francis some precious time he ran out of in his previous gig. He acknowledged the hockey landscape has changed — referencing a USA Today article from last year on that topic — and that there’s less patience to produce a winner today than when he took the Carolina job in 2014.
“In Carolina, our vision was that we had to rebuild it from the ground up,’’ he said. “That takes time when you’re only getting seven draft picks a year and those kids need time to develop.’’
NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke noted during Thursday’s event that much of the Hurricanes’ conference finalist squad from last season and Calder Cup championship AHL affiliate was stocked with a core of Francis selections. Leiweke repeatedly noted the respect and admiration Francis carries throughout hockey after a career spanning parts of 23 seasons as a Stanley Cup-winning player and three more as an associate Hurricanes head coach before permanently joining the front office.
“He carefully laid a foundation of how to move that franchise forward,’’ Leiweke said. “Not just for the NHL, but with the AHL.’’
Leiweke added: “We believe Ron’s patience paid off. His patience in drafting. His fingerprints were all over both of those rosters. Eighty percent of the goals scored were by the players he drafted — an amazing achievement.’’
And his patience outside of hockey is something NHL Seattle is counting on Francis for to help them sell the game within the community. Not talked about by Leiweke on Thursday was how NHL Seattle ran tests on the names of their potential GM candidates with selected sports fans to see how well they resonated.
The reputations of some candidates personality-wise from their NHL playing days or prior GM stints apparently didn’t go over as well with fans as others did. But Francis scored well above the fray, which isn’t surprising given how — as Leiweke noted during the news conference — he’d won both the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and the Frank J. Selke Trophy for unselfish two-way defensive play as a forward during the same 1994-95 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For now, Francis will take his time where it’s given. On the coaching front, waiting a year or two buys time for an established coach to become available — think Mike Babcock if the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t reach the Stanley Cup final soon — and others to gain or regain seasoning in the head position.
Francis’s former Hartford Whalers teammate, onetime Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen — whose father, Bill, was a longtime Seattle Totems fixture in the 1960s — was hired this week as bench boss of Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in San Diego after coaching Canada’s entry in the Spengler Cup in Switzerland last December. Francis was a co-GM of that same team and it wouldn’t be surprising for Dineen — who was an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks until last year but hasn’t been a professional head coach since 2013 — to get a serious look after a year or two of San Diego work.
On the subject of the Spengler Cup, Francis said that annual tournament and his managing Canada’s world championship entry in Slovakia and Austria this past spring helped bridge his time away from the league.
“When I was there, the passion really came back for me,’’ Francis said.
And once Leiweke reached out and brought Francis in last month to meet owners and tour the KeyArena site, the passion “became white hot to me.’’
By that point, as patient as Francis can be, he realized another year on the sidelines wasn’t something he could handle.
“This is going to be a fantastic opportunity,’’ he said. “We’ve got a blank canvas. Sure, it’s a daunting task and a lot of work. But it’s a unique challenge that you don’t get every day.’’