Inside the NHL
One of the first things everybody does when guessing whom Seattle NHL team general manager Ron Francis will hire for his coaching staff is check out the rosters of his 1980s Hartford Whalers squads.
They spawned a legendary NHL coaching tree, starting with former defenseman Joel Quenneville, now with Florida and building on his second-most victories by a coach in league history behind Scotty Bowman. The Francis-captained Whalers also produced Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett and current or former NHL coaches and assistants Kevin Dineen, Dean Evason, Ulf Samuelsson, Doug Jarvis, Steve Weeks, John Anderson and Brad Shaw.
But on the front-office side, candidates aren’t quite as obvious. Yes, there are ex-Whalers as well – recently fired Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton potentially one – but also guys that never wore the Hartford uniform, or, if they did, only once Francis had already left the team.
And it’s more the front-office types Francis probably hires within the coming year while leaving coaching calls until months after that or even spring of 2021.
NHL Seattle has the June 2021 expansion draft to prepare for and front-office strategy to solidify, meaning Francis needs assistant GMs and player-personnel types sooner than bench staffers.
And those who have observed Francis up close say to look no further than Ricky Olczyk, 49, his former assistant GM with the Carolina Hurricanes, as a potentially critical hire in navigating contractual and collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) issues.
Francis has known Olczyk and his family – including his parents — for years. Olczyk’s older brother, Ed, NBC Sports analyst and one of the best U.S. players ever, teamed with Francis in Pittsburgh for two seasons.
Ricky Olczyk earned his law degree at Cornell University, worked for the NHL Players’ Association and was running a consulting firm before becoming an Oilers assistant GM for six seasons. Francis hired Olczyk as his own assistant GM in Carolina in June 2014 right after assuming the GM position.
“He was a salary-cap guy, so he kept up with the cap and the ins and outs of the CBA,’’ one Hurricanes source said of Olczyk. “He and Ron worked amazingly well together and I can’t see why they couldn’t recreate that in Seattle.’’
Olczyk resigned after Francis was fired as GM and took a professional scouting job with the Toronto Maple Leafs – a role at which he is arguably underemployed.
Another potential assistant, who played for the Whalers but not alongside Francis, is former Maple Leafs player-development director Mark Hunter, 56. The former NHL winger helped build the powerhouse London Knights junior franchise after purchasing them in 2000 and graduating players like Patrick Kane, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Corey Perry to the NHL as the team’s GM.
Hunter served four years with the Leafs before leaving last year and returning to the Knights after being passed over for Toronto’s GM job in favor of Kyle Dubas. While in Toronto, Hunter developed a reputation as a shrewd talent evaluator – gleaned from running his junior-hockey franchise – and has since been looked at as a GM candidate by several teams.
Even before Francis was hired, NHL Seattle had looked closely at Hunter and been impressed by his talent recognition. In a breakfast interview at the NHL draft in Vancouver a few weeks before hiring Francis, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said of Hunter: “The work he’s done there has been terrific.’’
That sentiment was echoed that day by Seattle NHL team owner Jerry Bruckheimer.
“He’s a smart guy,’’ Bruckheimer said. “He’s done really well in Toronto and London.’’
And while the pair ultimately felt Francis the better-rounded GM candidate, having Hunter as an assistant GM would enable him to focus exclusively on his strongest area of expertise.
Both Hunter and Francis worked for Hockey Canada this past year. Francis was a co-GM of Team Canada at the World Hockey Championships while Hunter was GM of the Under-20 program and ran Canada’s entry at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Speaking of Hockey Canada, a third candidate for Seattle’s front office could be ex-Whalers goalie Sean Burke, 52, one of Francis’ co-GMs at the world championships this past spring. Burke never played with Francis in Hartford or Carolina despite time in both places, but they apparently worked well together with the Canadian side.
Burke spent six years as goaltending coach and player-development director with the Arizona Coyotes and is entering his fourth season as a western region pro scout with the Montreal Canadiens.
Given a glaring weakness for Francis in Carolina was his inability to land a goalie, Burke’s insights likely wouldn’t hurt. NHL Seattle could also look at Burke as a candidate to run their American Hockey League franchise expected for Palm Springs, Calif., given his familiarity with the region and player-development background.
For now, the franchise has only approved hiring Francis this early.
There has been speculation NHL Seattle might approach recently fired Wild GM Fenton, given his former Whalers ties and stellar prior job as a Nashville Predators assistant GM. But Fenton only played half a season for the Whalers when Francis was there and they never knew each other well.
Also, NHL Seattle plans to lean heavily on analytics and one reason Fenton was fired was reportedly his underutilization of the Wild’s staffers – including Alexandra Mandrycky, now NHL Seattle’s director of hockey administration.
One sleeper could be TV hockey analyst Ray Ferraro, a mainstay of those 1980s Whalers teams with Francis. Ferraro lives nearby in Vancouver, B.C., and is regarded as a potential management type given his strong on-air player analysis.
Also, there’s former Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, an assistant GM of the Los Angeles Kings back when NHL Seattle honcho Leiweke’s older brother, Tim, was that team’s president. Hextall is viewed as a strong drafter and his goaltending knowledge – plucking Everett Silvertips product Carter Hart as a second-rounder for the Flyers – could help Francis get over his netminder hump.
But Hextall could also soon be hired as a GM elsewhere. And NHL Seattle wants to avoid another Tippett scenario where they hire a front-office assistant too early and have them bolt for a bigger job before the new team plays.
Hunter could also get a GM job this summer. But if he doesn’t, unlike Hextall, he’s never been a GM before and will be going on two years removed from the league.
In other words, a Seattle front-office post for him – as for Olczyk and Burke — could appear mighty enticing once Francis gets the hiring go-ahead.