The still-unnamed Seattle franchise is two years away from debuting in the NHL, but the league’s 32nd team has its first GM. That’s Ron Francis, the Hall of Fame player who spent four years as the Carolina Hurricanes GM before being demoted, then fired, under new owner Tom Dundon in 2018.
Francis landed a coveted job in Seattle and has about 27 months before the 2021-22 season opener. The biggest challenge for Francis and his new squad? Matching the expectations that the Vegas Golden Knights set on (and off) the ice when they redefined success for an expansion franchise in 2017-18. In a candid conversation with ESPN, Francis discusses how he landed the job, his thoughts on watching the Canes’ playoff run this spring, when he’ll look to fill out his staff, what he’s looking for in his players and coaches and whether he believes other GMs will alter their approach to the expansion draft this time around.
ESPN: When did the job first become a possibility for you?
Ron Francis: I got involved with Hockey Canada at the World Championships — I was on the management team with Ron Hextall — and we were in Slovakia pretty much for the month of May. I would be lying if I didn’t say the passion and the fire to get back in the game started coming back; you’re around NHL coaches and players and people. Not long after that, [team president] Tod Leiweke gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in the Seattle position. Then we started talking. The more I heard about what their vision was and what they wanted to build, the more excited I became. I feel fortunate they were willing to give me this opportunity.
ESPN: Whom did you talk to through the interview process?
Francis: My first dinner was with Tod and [team COO] Victor DeBonis. The next morning I had breakfast with Tod. They put a hard hat and goggles on me and wheeled me around the construction site. They showed me what they were building and what things would look like, and it was extremely impressive. Then — and I thought this was pretty interesting — I got to spend some time with the staff that Tod had assembled and to hear what everybody did and what their role was. It was impressive to me, not only at how talented a group they were, but they came across as a group that loved what they were doing and were having fun doing it.
I spent some time interviewing with [Amazon executive/team minority owner] Andy Jassy, at that point. The next time I came out I met with Tim Leiweke a little bit, then had interviews with six, seven, eight of the different owners and met them. As we kept progressing forward, it became apparent to me that it was a special opportunity, and a great city that offers a great quality of life; it doesn’t hurt that we’d be one of six teams that has no state income tax. So I think it will be a destination place that players, especially free agents, want to consider.
ESPN: In talking to Tod, I get the sense that he wants to do things a little differently with this team — not necessarily follow every mold of the other 31 teams. Was there anything he mentioned to you that felt different or new?
Francis: I’ve always been a fan of analytics. Maybe they want to up that area of what we’re doing and be on the forefront there and do some innovative things. Technology, especially in this market, is very important. So I think we’ll be doing some cool things with technology. The biggest thing for me, that I took from all the meetings, is how they want to operate. All of their decisions come down to: do you want to do something right or do something less than right? They’ll do things right. They’re not cutting corners anywhere. They want to treat their staff, treat their players, their fans, the people of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest with the utmost respect and give them something special.
ESPN: How much has Las Vegas, and comparisons to Las Vegas, come up in conversations?
Francis: I got asked that question at the press conference, and I said, “I used to joke before I took this position I’d like to be the second GM in Seattle, not the first one, because of what Vegas did.” But this is a different setup. I think if you go back and listen to the comments that Vegas had leading up to the expansion draft, their plan was to draft and develop well and be patient in the process. I think George [McPhee] and Kelly [McCrimmon] did a fantastic job. They had an unbelievable first season, and the franchise is in good position ever since. So hopefully we can draft some good players in the expansion draft, and draft some good players in the amateur draft, and take the time to develop those guys.
ESPN: Vegas was very clear about their expectations before their inaugural season: They wanted to be competitive in three years and compete for a Stanley Cup in six. What are your expectations?
Francis: I think you’re always hoping you can be competitive out of the gate. That’s part of where our focus is at, and we’re going to have to really work hard in the next 23 months to make sure we’re prepared for the expansion draft. We’ll study the free-agent market and be ready for that as well.
ESPN: What’s your timeline for filling out a staff?
Francis: I think the bulk of it, especially in the scouting realm, will be a year from now. I’m not opposed to finding a handful of guys to scout the pro level, the American league level. I do think we’ll be a bit more proactive on the analytical side just so we can start collecting data, and when we get the bodies on board next summer, we already have some of those things in place.
ESPN: So you might begin scouting players this coming season?
Francis: Yeah, I’m open to it. Obviously there is the potential of the lockout next year, so I do think we want to get some coverage this year, especially in the NHL and American league level in case that happens. But the plan is to go full bore on the scouting staff as we go into next summer.
ESPN: In the NHL, GMs tend to hire people they know or people they’ve worked with in the past. How much will you lean on your Whalers connections for hires?
Francis: It might have been a possibility a few months ago, but they all got jobs again! Tippy [Dave Tippett] is in Edmonton, Joel [Quenneville] is in Florida, Kevin Dineen just got hired in San Diego. But there’s certainly a lot of Whalers around. I think the beauty for me, having played 23 years in the league and then being involved in the management side for over 12 years, is you run across a lot of different people and make a lot of relationships, so we’ll see what transpires moving forward in that regard.
ESPN: What are you most proud of in your time with the Hurricanes?
Francis: We set a plan to rebuild that organization — that was our focus. I think we were patient in doing it. I think we stuck to the plan as we moved forward. I think the guys that I had and worked with there did a real good job in rebuilding that organization, and they’re set up to have success for many years moving forward. I’m excited for that. The fans in Raleigh, they certainly deserve it.
ESPN: How much of their playoff run did you watch?
Francis: I watched a little bit of the first part, but then I was in Slovakia and Austria from May 1 to May 28, so I missed a significant portion when I was overseas.
ESPN: What was it like watching them and seeing how far they made it?
Francis: It’s kind of bittersweet. You’re happy for them, but there’s a lot of guys who put a lot of work into that and should have been around. What happened there afforded me to take this position. So I’ve turned the page.
ESPN: You’re uprooting your family and moving them across the country. Was that a difficult decision? Did you need to do any convincing?
Francis: Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t like we were moving down the street. We are pretty much going coast to coast, which is a big move. I’m very fortunate — my wife has been a part of this industry a while. We’ve been married for 31 years and dated for five before that. We had a saying in Hartford: “Life on a hockey stick.” She was willing to make the move.
My youngest has one more year at university, and then he’s free to choose where he wants to go. My middle one is working at a good job in North Carolina, so I think he’s content on being there at this point. My oldest currently lives in L.A., so she’s a short flight away.
ESPN: The Vegas expansion draft was the first one in a while and featured new restrictions. It seemed like some GMs tried to get too cute and made side deals that might have backfired in the end. Do you think teams will be savvier this time around?
Francis: People have gone through it once, so they know there are things they would do differently. I think some GMs take some criticism for that, but at the end of the day, if there’s a player you’re worried about losing that you know can play and know can help your lineup, then you have to give up a pick that may or may not turn into a player or a prospect that may or may not turn into a player. I don’t think you can blame a GM for trying to keep the player that he knows can play or help his team be successful.
ESPN: What are some attributes you’re looking for in guys who will be on your opening-night roster?
Francis: Today’s game is a fast-paced game, so you’ve got to be able to skate. I want a team that’s competitive, a lot of character. It’s not always going to be smooth over an 82-game season, so you’re going to want the character that can help pull you through these tough times. Personally, I like skill and hockey sense. It doesn’t hurt to have a little size and toughness in your lineup as you head into the playoffs.
ESPN: What are you looking for in a coach?
Francis: The one thing I’ll be looking for is experience, especially at the NHL level. You’re trying to pull all these different players who have played for different lineups and never really spent time together, so you want someone who has been there and has been through it. I think experience, for sure, is an important attribute for the first coach who is hired.