With full encouragement from now ex-boss Ron Francis, NHL Seattle pro scout Ulf Samuelsson was announced Monday as the new coach for Leksands IF in the elite-level professional Swedish Hockey League.
The Swedish team's management is hoping Samuelsson can help avoid relegation or dropping to play in a second-tier Swedish pro league next season. The task takes on extra meaning for Samuelsson: He played for the club three years as a teenager before joining the NHL's Hartford Whalers as a 20-year-old. Plus, his son, Philip, is a defenseman on Leksands IF's current roster.
"We had to clear some hurdles," said Samuelsson Sunday afternoon, referring to conversations with both Francis and the Chicago Blackhawks NHL franchise, which is still paying out an assistant coaching contract. "Ron was great about it. He is excited for me and the opportunity. I called him to make sure we are good for future possibilities."
Francis knows Samuelsson has the grit and leadership to inspire his Swedish squad. In between stints as a NHL assistant coach, Samuelsson was head coach for one season of the American Hockey League's Charlotte Checkers franchise, hired by Francis, who was running the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes.
"Ulf was passionate about his task of developing players at the AHL level," recalled Francis during a Sunday call. "He communicated well, despite our [Hurricanes] club calling up several players because we had so many injuries the first half of the season. Ulf found his team in last place in January, mostly because we had taken away [top players]. He stayed with it and the team made playoffs in the very last week of the season. The Checkers then faced the top seed and took that team to a fifth game [in a best-of-five] series."
Along with calls to Chicago and Francis, Samuelsson had another important dial-up. He talked with his son Philip. "I sincerely asked him the question about me coaching the team," said Samuelsson. "He said he was excited. He played on the Charlotte team when I coached, and we had success. We look forward to having success again."
Samuelsson praised the NHL Seattle organization, getting a first-hand look this past week as the franchise's pro scouts gathered for a historic first in-person scouting summit that included comprehensive evaluations of every NHL roster and a mock expansion draft.
"I heard so much about Tod Leiweke [NHL Seattle CEO] and the whole organization across the board," said Sameulsson. "It was great to see and feel the vibe first-hand. It was fun to experience and leaves me hoping I might have spot here in the future.
Samuelsson said the scout meetings showed Francis, assistant GM Ricky Olczyk and director of hockey strategy and research Alexandra Mandrycky as "so organized and that they will be completely ready" the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
"Ronnie has assembled a good group of pro scouts, people from different backgrounds not afraid to voice their opinion," said Samuelsson. "It was my first time attending a pro scouting meeting. There was a lot of information and we have built an impressive database already."
Francis credits Sameulsson with yeomen work filing scouting reports on players from teams playing NHL away games at Anaheim and Los Angeles, plus AHL games in San Diego. While Samuelsson joked at a Pacific Science Center event last week that he loved the "free popcorn" and "nearby parking" afforded game-credentialed NHL scouts, Francis was clear his former Hartford and Pittsburgh teammate and road-trip roommate was filing comprehensive reports, complete with information gleaned from video review and advanced data analytics.
Samuelsson has a decade of experience as an NHL assistant coach, plus two seasons with Modo of the Swedish Hockey League. He said the NHL Seattle scouting work was "pretty exciting," helping him to "get back in the groove" after Chicago fired him along with three-time Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville early during the 2018-19 season. The coaching bug followed.
"Coaching gets me closer to competition, the ups and down," Samuelson said. "There is a certain appeal to it. I am not why I would ever want the lows, but I guess that is part of it."
Samuelsson said joining Leksands IF during a critical stretch run is "coming full circle" to help the team avoid finishing in last place (where Leksands IF now stands] or second-to-last place in the SHL, which then forces playoff games with the top two teams from the second-tier Swedish pro league. Which teams are relegating and/or promoted requires a bit of explanation, but Samuelsson acknowledged not finishing in the lowest two places is the objective.
"There are 14 games left," said Samuelsson, who joins Leksands IF during the Swedish league's seven-day break to allow the national team to compete internationally. "There is still enough time to finish above the last two places. But it will be an uphill battle. I look forward to the challenge. A new voice can sometimes spark the players. They have to reprove themselves and it helps to regain focus."
Right now, Samuelsson is committed for the remainder of the Leksands season. Whether the Swedish-born star stays for another season is unclear. What's definite is there will media speculation that maybe Samuelsson returns in a coaching role for NHL Seattle, whether it be the top club or the new AHL expansion team in Palm Springs.
"Ulf has deep experience as an NHL assistant coach and as head coach in the AHL and Sweden," said Francis. "He would certainly be a logical candidate for any coaching positions we might have with the franchise."