A long-awaited Kraken amateur scouting staff heavy on experience was announced Friday, headed by a European-born former NHL player who should prove to be an immediate strategic addition amid COVID-19 shutdowns.
Onetime Vancouver Canucks winger Robert Kron, 53 and a Czech Republic native, was actually hired last month as the team’s director of amateur scouting after serving as head of European scouting for the Carolina Hurricanes. Kron agreed that his knowledge of the European game should be “a leg up” for the Kraken in the short term, given that’s where most non-NHL hockey is being played.
“I would think so,” said Kron, who left the Czech professional circuit at age 23 to join the Canucks, who’d drafted him five years prior. “I feel kind of fortunate in that, even though I’ve lived most of my life in North America, I grew up in Europe. I know the mentality of the people there. So the knowledge of the local and overall European market and the style of hockey is a great advantage.”
The hiring also comes amid pandemic shutdowns that have delayed the start of most top-level hockey in North America outside of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), which has been racked by positive COVID-19 tests while trying to play in four Canadian provinces. Besides Kron, who is based in Washington, D.C., the Kraken also hired four European-based scouts last month so they could begin attending games there right away.
“Right now, with the travel to Europe and stuff, if you can get in you’ve got to quarantine for 14 days, and then there’s no guarantee the games will actually be played,” Francis said. “So we’re doing that at this point with the European staff, letting them handle that and then collecting anything they can on those games via video.”
Joining the European side of the team’s amateur scouting ranks under Kron will be onetime Philadelphia Flyers winger Pelle Eklund, Marcus Fingal, Sasu Hovi and Russian-based Aleksandr Plyushev. On the North American side, Francis snatched up former longtime Carolina amateur scouting director Tony MacDonald, let go by the Hurricanes last year after nearly 30 season of NHL scouting work, along with Mike Dawson, Jeff Crisp, Tom O’Connor, Thomas Plante, Trevor Stienburg and Darren Yopyk.
“Because this situation is so unique, we try to get some key people with some experience,” said Francis, who has personal experience with most of the new hires.
Crisp was assistant director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres from 2016-20 and spent 13 seasons scouting with the Anaheim Ducks. His father, Terry, was a former NHL player and coach who coached Francis during his junior days.
Dawson, who hails from Francis’ hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, had been promoted to head of North American scouting by the Hurricanes in July 2019 after seven seasons as an amateur scout. Yopyk was with the Minnesota Wild since 2011 and co-director of amateur scouting the past two seasons, and O’Connor was a regional scout with the U.S. national development team program from 2015-20.
Francis played alongside Kron in Carolina the final few seasons of his own Hall of Fame career. Kron also played for Hartford and ended his career with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001-02, having compiled 144 goals and 194 assists in 771 games.
“Robert’s got a lot of experience,” Francis said. “He knows a hockey player when he sees one.”
The trick now will be to actually see them.
The Kraken is at a disadvantage compared with other teams that got more scouting in on 17-year-old, draft-eligible players before the junior leagues in Canada and this country shut down. There can be a huge jump in player size and talent from age 17 to 18, and in some cases players available in next summer’s draft may go a year between games.
The Ontario Hockey League announced Thursday that it won’t reopen until Feb. 4. The Western Hockey League, comprising the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, this month set Jan. 8 as a tentative start date, but that’s looking shaky amid escalating COVID-19 infection rates on both sides of the border.
The third major-junior circuit under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella, the QMJHL, began play this month in separate Quebec and Maritime province divisions. The 12 Quebec-based teams were shut down Oct. 14 after several were ravaged by COVID-19 cases, but four of them were given the go-ahead Friday to resume play.
Six QMJHL teams from the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island are playing on. Newly hired Kraken scout Stienburg, who spent three decades coaching St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, is already scouting QMJHL games in the Maritimes.
The United States Hockey League, this country’s top junior circuit, plans a 54-game regular season instead of 62 — and with 14 teams instead of 16 — starting Nov. 5.
Several NCAA Division I conferences have announced plans to play a 2020-21 season. So have a handful of Canadian conferences, though the country’s university sports governing body has already canceled both men’s and women’s national hockey championships.
Kron said the Kraken is working with its analytics department on computer projection models to try to estimate how such players might look in the absence of playing games.
“It’s exciting, first of all,” Kron said. “But also challenging at the same time. It’s not a normal year for anyone. Especially for us to try to put together a list of players we’re going to be drafting. It’s going to be a challenging year. But I think we’ve put together a really good group of people that have a lot of experience.”