Hurricanes Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Development Ron Francis recently returned from a trip to western Canada to see 2007 draft picks Brandon Sutter, Drayson Bowman and Justin McCrae in action with their junior hockey teams.He recently sat down with carolinahurricanes.com’s Paul Branecky to discuss the players’ progress and where he fits in with their development.
Q: What is the purpose of your trips and what do you do on them?
Francis:First of all, I’ll touch base with the [junior] coaches prior to heading out to make sure that they’re aware that I’ll be in town just to make sure that I don’t step on anybody’s toes and that they’re OK with me at some point making contact with our draft picks and talking to them either the morning of the game or after the game or whenever.
Basically the purpose of the trip is to go out and watch the kids play, and see if there’s anything that I can pick up in their game of if there’s anything they can improve on or need to work on to get better.I just sort of monitor their progress, and then the next time I see them I’ll have a base for when I saw them the first time of where they’re at and whether or not they are making improvements.
I get a chance to meet the kid personally and have a chat with him, see where he’s at and if there are any areas where he thinks he’s struggling or not confident in.I get a chance to talk with his coach and make sure there’s no issues on-ice, in the locker room or off-ice that he sees.
I just sort of build that rapport with the player.Ideally what we’re trying to do is get them to the NHL more quickly.If there’s something we can do to help speed that process along, then we’re willing to try and do it.
Q: Do the players typically have a lot of questions for you?
Francis: No, they’re actually kind of shy for the most part.Now and then you’ll get a guy that will throw something at you and question you, but for the most part they’re just kind of listening.
Sometimes it’s hard with their schedule.For instance, I saw Sutter and Bowman on Sunday at .Sutter had played the night before, Bowman had played Friday and Saturday, traveled, and gotten there at 4 in the morning.I may not necessarily see his greatest game on Sunday because I have to factor in his schedule and where everything’s at in making those decisions on how much or how little to say to them.
I do get reports constantly from all our scouts about all our players, and I’m able to read those and monitor their progress.
Q: How often do you make these trips?
Francis: Last year I was probably doing two trips a month on average to cover both our prospects and our team in Albany.This year we’ve gone from eight guys to 12 guys that I’m responsible for, plus Albany.I’m not going to see our guys as often as I did last year on an individual basis, but my goal is to make sure I cover all 12 guys plus Albany at least a couple of times.I also now have access where I can actually watch games on my computer, so I can cover some there that I’m not going to be able to get to.
Q: Do you think the players feel any added pressure when you’re there to watch them?
Francis: I’ve done it in the past both ways, where I’ve gone in and made sure they knew I was there to watch their game, and then I’ve also gone in there and not said a word and then showed up after the game just to see if there’s some difference in how they play and how they respond.
If there is added pressure, I’d like to put it on their shoulders and force them to play with it.That’s our job, you’re going to have to play in a lot of pressure situations, and I want to be able to see what your game is in those conditions.I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to maybe give them that spark if it’s their third game in three nights or fourth game in four.It can work both ways, but hopefully if it puts a little extra pressure on them, I’d like to see them respond to it.
Q:All three players are either leading their team in scoring or are close to it.Is that encouraging for you to see?
A:Yeah, it is.I think more than anything what’s encouraging is the feedback you get from the scouts and the coaches.The feedback that I get in the brief conversations I have is that they’re all solid kids with good character that want to learn, want to get better and want to continue their careers at the next step.When you have that passion and desire in your prospects, that bodes well for the future.
Junior team: Red Deer (WHL) Position: Center and Right Wing Height / Weight: 6'3" / 170 Born: 2/14/89, Huntington, NY Drafted: First Round, 11th overall
Leads team in goals and points
Francis’ Overview:With Brandon, we’re really comfortable in who he is and what his game is.Obviously he comes from really strong bloodlines in the Sutter family and has Brian Sutter as his coach, who played in the NHL and has a good handle on things.
I like his game.He’s very aware in all areas of the ice, whether it’s offense or defense.He’s a smart player with great hockey sense.Positionally he’s very solid and his faceoffs are good.We feel very comfortable that we’ve got a guy there that will continue to develop.
His biggest thing is just needing to mature physically, and that’s going to take time.He’s about 170 pounds right now, and I think when you see him in the NHL, he’ll be in that 190 or 200 plus range, which is a huge difference.For a guy with those smarts, to get stronger and fill out is really going to help him.
Q: What type of player will he be in the NHL?
Francis: It’s hard to really get an accurate assessment of where he’s going to end up, because guys, when you pick them, are still in an early age.I hate to put a label on a guy and say he’s only going to be this or that, but I think there’s so much room for these kids to grow in their game.
But I think the real positive thing for Brandon at this point is that he’s relatively young, but his mind for the game is advanced.He really understands the game, and his hockey sense is very good in being able to read situations and do things.
He’s in a situation right now on a very young team that is struggling, and as a result he’s asked to do a lot.My conversations with him were telling him to focus on the positives and continuing to work hard and improve your game and not get so caught up in trying to do too much.I certainly think he’s going to develop in a really solid center in the NHL.
Q: Does not being on a great team affect the players’ development?
Francis: Obviously the better the players you have around you, the better it’s going to make you look and the more confidence you’re going to gain from that and build from that.I think it’s probably easier to have that great supporting cast.
Having said that, in the situation he’s in, he’s relied on in pretty much every situation and garners a lot of ice time, which is certainly going to help him develop there also.I think in his case, he’s a smart enough kid to maintain that focus where it needs to be.Having played at the elite level for that age group in the World Junior Championships and in the Canada/Russia series last summer, knowing that you can play at that level I think help softens the blow of maybe a tough season that they’re going through right now with this young team.
Strengths: His two biggest assets are probably his hockey sense and his work ethic.He gives you everything he’s got out on the ice and he knows how to play the game.
Areas to improve:The one thing I talked with him about was that a lot of time when your team is struggling and it’s a young team, you try to take on too much yourself and try to do too much.I saw a few times when he looked up and saw his first option and it was there, but then he was trying to make something better.
As you progress up the chain, the one thing everybody will tell you is that the game gets faster.Nine out of 10 times, your first option is probably your best option.I’d like to see him look at that option and take it, and then continue to jump into the play.The problem with a young team is that after that you may not get the puck back, and that can be frustrating.But I’d rather see him continue to work in that direction, because as he gets to the next step when things are quicker, by the time you get to the second option it’s going to be shut down a lot more quickly than it is at that level. But other than that, I’m pleased with his game.
Junior team: Spokane (WHL) Position: Center and Left Wing Height / Weight: 6'0" / 181 Born: 3/8/89, Grand Rapids, MI Drafted: Third Round, 72nd overall
t-1st WHL in goals, t-2nd points
Francis’ Overview: He’s progressing quite nicely.When our guys draft players, I haven’t necessarily seen them, and I had not seen any of the guys I saw this weekend until they came in for rookie camp and training camp.That was my first look at the guys and what they’re like, and I really liked what I saw of Bowman in training camp.He shot the puck extremely well, he has sort of an NHL-type release with really quick, soft hands.He seemed to have pretty good hockey sense and vision on the ice and really had a good camp for us here.
He’s gone back and really taken off.He’s at the top of the league in goal scoring, which is good.He won back-to-back CHL player of the week awards, which is a lot harder to do, because the Canadian Hockey League has three separate sections, the Western, the Ontario and the Quebec leagues, and not only was he the WHL player of the week, but the player of the week for all of Canada, which is a huge accomplishment, and to do it back-to-back is even tougher to do.So he’s progressing quite nicely, and we’re anxiously waiting for the release of the American lineup for the World Junior Championship to see if he’s on it.
Q: Is it fair to say that he’s exceeding expectations thus far?
Francis: I think our scouts would always say that they can see it in him, and in fairness to everyone involved, I’ve learned in the last year that you have to sort of temper your optimism.It’s still very early in the process, but you never know from one year to another.They’ll look great at one point and then not so good the next.But to this point, it’s safe to say that we’re very pleased we were able to get him in the third round and he’s doing better than we had hoped to this point, so we hope he continues.
Q: What has he been doing that’s making him play so well?
Francis: I think sometimes in that first year in the league you’re not really sure where you fit in, and I think if you asked him honestly he’d be a little upset that he went in the third round, I think maybe he thinks he should have went higher.I get the feeling that he’s using some of that as motivation.
He had the opportunity to come in here to our conditioning camp, and [Hurricanes Head Athletic Trainer/Strength and Conditioning Coach] Pete Friesen does a really good job of putting these guys through the paces and really educating them more than anything else that, yeah juniors is great and juniors is tough, but here’s what it’s going to take to get to the next level.
He learned a lot from that and put those three or four weeks between rookie camp and training camp to good use, came back into training camp and gained some confidence with his shot.Numerous times I watched him and he was scoring goals with that shot he has and that release he has, and I think he probably went back and said, hey, if I can do it at level with these guys, I should be able to do it in the junior ranks.Certainly he’s done a great job at the start of the season.
Q: It is a common theme for players to gain confidence from attending an NHL training camp?
Francis: Everybody is different.Some guys go through it and you don’t really strike a chord with them, and it’s kind of frustrating trying to find what button it is you need to push.But other guys, you watch them go through the camp and you see marked changes.The guys that went through the rookie camp and went through our training camp only a few weeks later, and I know it’s only a short period of time, but you’re able to keep track of their progress and see the guys that actually take it to heart and are willing to work at it, which is great.Certainly the three guys I saw this weekend all fall into that category.
Strengths: His shot is extremely good.It’s an extremely quick, powerful release.Rarely do I see him use the slap shot, which is good because he’s scoring all these goals with that hard wrist shot.His playmaking is also better than I expected; he has soft hands and moves the puck well.
Areas to improve:How do you criticize a guy who’s leading the league in scoring?I only saw him one game, and I tempered my comments based on the fact that he had played three games in three days, but I think that he can actually score more.He hit some posts in the game I was there and in the games before I got there.
A couple of times on the power play, when the puck goes to the opposite side and there’s a shot coming, he kind of stayed outside rather than driving to the net for options.But overall I’m very pleased with his game at this point.
Francis’ Overview: Justin was a tough one, he yanked his groin in the third shift that I was there, and unfortunately that’s part of it, you never know what’s going to happen when you make these trips.
He’s a solid all-around player with good hockey smarts, and he’s a really good kid.I think he has a good handle on the game and how it should be played.I’ve spent some time with his coach, Lorne Molleken, who coached in the NHL and has a good track record, and he really likes Justin and has no issues with him on or off the ice.I think one of the things for him is that he still needs to physically mature and grow, and he’s still at that point where he can get bigger and stronger.
Q: Had you gotten a chance to see him earlier, or just at the camps here in Raleigh?
Francis: I had only seen him at the camps here, and this was my first chance to actually go and see him play in a game that meant something.To his credit, he tried to gut it out and he hung in there for almost two periods and had to pull himself out for the third.
Obviously watching him for those two periods he wasn’t at 100 percent, but he certainly showed that he has a real handle on the game and how it should be played as far as conditioning and strength and smarts.It’s disappointing that I couldn’t see him at 100 percent, but it’s more important that he’s healthy in the long haul than just the three periods that I’m there.
Q: The same things are often said about both Sutter and McCrae.Are they similar players?
Francis: They both are similar in their styles of play.Justin is in a very similar situation to Brandon in that they’re on a very young team that’s really struggling this year.The good thing to see, just like Brandon in Red Deer, is that Justin is the captain in Saskatoon.When you see your guys getting selected for those kinds of positions, it tells you that they’re strong character players and somebody that the coach believes in.Both of those guys have exceptional work ethic, and they’re going to give you everything they’ve got every time out on the ice and compete and battle, which is good to see. They are very similar in that they understand the game and their hockey sense and positioning are good.
Strengths: I think his work ethic is very good.His positioning is good too.
Areas to improve: For him maybe in the brief time I saw him, he just needs to be a little more relaxed when he gets the puck and maybe take a little bit more control of it.Sometimes when things aren’t going well for you and your team is struggling, you tend to squeeze the stick a little bit tighter.He’s got some skill and some smarts, and he just needs to believe in that and have a little more confidence.