Inside the NHL
NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis knows the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship getting underway this week in the Czech Republic can provide crucial scouting information to help build his coming franchise.
Francis will watch the highly anticipated U.S.-Canada opener on television Thursday at his North Carolina home. He’ll then fly overnight to London, England, connect to Vienna, Austria and drive three hours to the Czech city of Ostrava near the Polish border to start seeing games in person Friday night.
For Francis, gathering firsthand info on the world’s top Under-20 age category players helps preparations on three fronts: The makeup of his future NHL roster, that of his AHL farm team and working out potential trades ahead of the June 2021 expansion draft.
“I think there are a lot of things we’re trying to evaluate here,’’ Francis said Sunday. “One is the NHL rosters for our expansion draft. Two is AHL rosters to get information on them, too, for depth charts. And then the third piece is prospects.
“So, players that teams have drafted, players that are in this year’s draft … it just gives us good knowledge on all the organizations that we’re looking at with (their) prospects in case we get down the road and we’re talking trade and stuff. We’ll kind of have an idea of who we think their best prospects are.’’
Of course, any fan that’s ever watched the tournament will form instant impressions on who the best prospects are. Those who saw onetime Everett Silvertips netminder Carter Hart backstop Canada to consecutive gold medal contests and a championship in 2018 all sensed the Philadelphia Flyers had a great goalie prospect on their hands.
But often, it’s smaller things behind the play that dictate which world junior standouts attain future NHL success. There’s a temptation to assume this tournament is a preview of future NHL royalty, but the reality is often more sobering.
Francis never even played in the tournament — his junior career was shorter than most — and yet enjoyed a Hall of Fame career.
“There are a lot of players in this tournament that will never play in the NHL,’’ Francis said. “And there are players that aren’t playing in this tournament that will play in the NHL. So yeah, I think this is just kind of a snapshot where you’ve got 10 different countries there and a lot of high-end guys. So, you’re able to catch 13 games in seven days and get an assessment on these guys really quick.’’
With that in mind, he’ll eye specifics beyond who’s scoring goals and setting them up.
“I think it’s pretty easy to see which guys can fly and which guys struggle skating,’’ Francis said. “I think it’s a little more challenging to assess hockey sense — which guys have real good smart plays? Like, an offside winger. Is he puck-focused? Is he picking up the weak side D? You look at stick positioning at the blue line and different things that guys do that kind of make you go ‘OK, this guy is smart’ or maybe ‘This guy has some work to do.’ ’’
Yes, he’ll look for requisite passing and shooting skills. But alongside those, “you’re always interested in the kid that competes versus the guy that takes the easy way and stays on the perimeter too.’’
And for that, it helps to see games in person and follow where TV cameras don’t.
The Soviet Union owned the tournament in the 1970s before Canada made 1980s inroads and turned it into mostly a two-team event with Russia through the 1990s. Sweden, the Czechs and Finland occasionally challenged while the U.S. was an afterthought.
That changed around when I covered my first world junior tournament in 2003 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That tourney featured a 16-year-old Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with favored Canada, but also a stacked U.S. team with Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Dustin Brown and Ryan Kesler.
The Americans made the semifinal and nearly knocked off Canada, losing 3-2, but served notice of their arrival. The following year in Helsinki, Finland, the U.S. beat Canada for its first gold and has since added three more.
At last year’s tournament in Vancouver, British Columbia, the U.S. and future No. 1 overall NHL draft pick Jack Hughes lost the gold to Finland in the dying minutes. Still, that Team USA now enters these events as one of the favorites speaks volumes about junior hockey’s progress here.
Much of the credit goes to the Michigan-based National Team Development Program, which provides elite level U-18 and U-17 training for players. Before the program’s onset in 1996, such players had to vie for limited spots on Canadian major junior team rosters or older NCAA squads.
“Now, they take these kids at an earlier age and work with them over time,’’ Francis said. “These are guys that have played together and understand their system.’’
The development team had eight players selected in the first round and 17 overall in the NHL Draft last June. They included current Team USA starting netminder Spencer Knight — backed up this tournament by Silvertips goalie Dustin Wolf — at 13th overall, while forward Alex Turcotte was chosen 5th, Cole Caufield 15th and defenseman Cam York 14th.
And Francis should come away from this tournament knowing a lot more about everyone else. After all, one or two of those players could eventually don a Seattle jersey.