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Born to Run (an NHL Team)

NHL Seattle's historic announcement of Ron Francis as its first GM comes with a playlist for success

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

When Seattle's first-ever general manager Ron Francis played junior hockey in his hometown Sault St. Marie, Ontario, he drove the same way to the rink for home games with the music turned up loud.

"I would take a certain route so all of my songs could play and end at the rink right on time, ready to play," says Francis, laughing, during an exclusive interview with NHL Seattle earlier this week.

The songs?

"I grew up a Springsteen fan," says Francis. "I like a lot of his old stuff: 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,' 'Born to Run,' 'Jungleland.'"

In the new job, there's a whole new playlist that Francis is working. It involves who will suit up for NHL Seattle for the inaugural 2021-22 season, whether by expansion draft, trades, free agent signings or the entry draft.

Francis talks about the expansion draft like someone who has immersed in the subject, thinking, calling contacts, discussing the machinations with team CEO Tod Leiweke and Director of Hockey Administration Alexandra Mandrycky. Think savant-level.

Leiweke clearly picked up the vibe during his interviews with Francis. During the press conference, he declared Francis will be ready "for the defining moment of an expansion draft where we're going to pick the team in about an hour and a half."

When asked if the 30 general managers of other NHL teams (Vegas is protected) will be smarter about protecting the right players this time around, Francis suggested reason for optimism. In part, because the league's salary cap will still be firmly in place.

"There are always going to be tough decisions in regard to who your sign and how much term you give them and how much money give," said Francis in the interview. "It's about managing the cap.

"Everybody is saying the GMs with handle it differently, but I think at the end of the day if a GM has a good young player he knows can play in the NHL and in order to protect him, he has to give up a pick or a prospect, we have to look at that. The pick and prospect offer no guarantee of playing in the NHL, but we will consider all options. There still are going to be teams up against the [salary] cap and bad contracts they have to move. I am hopeful we can work out deals."

During the July 18 press conference and again during that evening's packed and high-volume fan fest, Leiweke said NHL Seattle will be "a cap team." For the uninitiated, it means the team will be setting up a budget that factors player salaries at that maximum of NHL rules. That's different than Francis' GM years in Carolina, where his budget was considerably below the cap.

"One thing that will be unique in Seattle is the ability to go out and sign free agents," explains Francis. "When you are playing in a city that people love, players will want to be part of it. Plus Washington is a state with no state income tax and one of only six teams in the league that offers that [savings]. We will be an attractive spot." 

Not to be lost here is Francis' commitment to drafting and developing players-which he proved to the positive as Carolina's GM. In the NHL, that means drafting 18-year-olds in the entry draft.

"In any organization, you have scout and draft extremely well," Francis said. "The next stage is the developmental process that helps the drafted players get to the NHL."

Francis is a documented early adopter of hockey analytics. Data crunching will be part of both the expansion and entry drafts. But forecasting draft prospects can be a challenge, especially as players compete is more than dozen different leagues with opponents as young as 16 and well into their 30s.

"You have to remember these guys are 18 years old," said Francis. "It's not a perfect science. We will be trying to project how these players will perform [in the future, maybe even four or five seasons later]."

Francis said it is individual by individual case.

"Maybe one player is more mature off the ice," said Francis "Other guys need time to develop. Character is important. You need character players get you through the tough times. It is certainly easy to exhibit characters when things are going well. We will do our homework talking to coaches, trainers, billets [families who host junior players] to make sure there are no red flags. We can get to the bottom of it at the NHL Combine and Draft." 

In every case from 18-year-olds to expansion picks to possible free agents, Francis has a two-pronged approach.

Let his former assistant GM in Carolina fill us in:

"Ron knows the kind of players he wants," said Mike Verlucci during a phone conversation before the GM announcement. "He wants players with a high hockey IQ and high skills. Hockey IQ is a understanding the game by thinking a couple plays ahead and how also how players play together. Skills he wants are fast skaters who can protect the puck [not losing it to opponents whether in the defensive, neutral or offensive zones].

Verlucci inherited numerous Ron Francis draft selection when he coached the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina's minor league affiliate. Verlucci posted a 97-43-12 coaching record and led his team to the American Hockey League's title this spring. Eighty percent of the Checkers' Calder Cup goals and assists during the Calder Cup run were scored by players Francis acquired. Verlucci left Carolina this summer to accept the head coaching job with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittburgh's AHL affiliate.

"Ron is an intelligent manager who was one of the all-time most intelligent players," said Verlucci. "It carries over. I'm a little more of a reaction guy. The top lesson I learned from Ron is his patience. He thinks everything out."

Sometimes with Bruce in the background.

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