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Francis ready for Seattle comparisons after success of Vegas

New general manager expects rivals to approach expansion draft differently

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

After the Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18, people joked the worst job in hockey would be general manager of the Seattle NHL expansion team.

The funny part is, one of them took the job.

"I used to joke that I'd probably want to be the second GM in Seattle, not the first one, because of the expectations after what Vegas did," Francis said with a laugh over the phone after he was introduced at a news conference in Seattle on Thursday. "But I think it's a great challenge."

 

[RELATED: Francis checked every box for Seattle GM job | Francis introduced as Seattle GM]

 

Some things will be similar. Some things will be different. Some things cannot be predicted this far in advance. The NHL Expansion Draft won't be until June 2021; Seattle won't play its first game until October of that year. But Seattle will have the same expansion draft rules Vegas did (with the Golden Knights exempt) and an opportunity to be competitive immediately.

"I think it will be interesting as you go through the process to see what GMs decide they want to change based on what they did last time," Francis said. "But I still think there will be good players available."

When McPhee was introduced in Las Vegas on July 13, 2016, he said: "The sit-back style of hockey, I don't like it. Teams are attacking all the time and pressuring pucks all over the ice."

That became a cornerstone of what the Golden Knights built.

Video: Francis' first steps with the new Seattle franchise

Asked what kind of team he wanted to build, Francis said, "If you look at my track record, I like players that can skate. I think the game now is at that level. I certainly like players that I think have good hockey sense and certainly skill set. I like a high level of compete. I like character in my players. As (former NHL executive) Brian Burke likes to say, I think when you get into the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, you still need a little beef."

Francis will have some of the same selling points McPhee did: committed ownership, new arena, new practice facility, no state income tax, vibrant city. But he will have to build an American Hockey League team in Palm Springs, California, too; McPhee didn't have to build an AHL team immediately.

"We're not cutting any corners," Francis said. "This is going to be a team that the players are treated well, the fans are treated well, the community's treated well. I think it's going to become a place that players are really going to want to play. That allows us to go into the free agent market.

"We're going to have to fill a lot of spots. We're not just trying to build an NHL team that first year; we're trying to build an American Hockey League team, which is a little bit different from Vegas' perspective as well. So certainly free agents will be a piece that we're looking at."

McPhee was hired about 11 months ahead of the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and NHL Draft. The team then hired about 35 people in about 60 days, including an assistant GM, a director of hockey ops, a director of player personnel, a director of amateur scouting, an NHL salary-cap expert and a stable of pro and amateur scouts.

Francis was hired about 23 months ahead of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and NHL Draft. He said the initial feeling was that Seattle would hire pro scouts to cover the NHL and AHL this season and a full stable of pro and amateur scouts next season. He said Seattle, which hired analytics specialist Alexandra Mandrycyk as its director of hockey administration on June 23, likely would fill out the analytics staff sooner rather than later.

"It's interesting how much more time he has than George when he was hired as general manager," said Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon, who will become GM on Sept. 1 while McPhee will remain president of hockey ops. "This is going to allow Ron to build his organization at a steadier pace. … It's going to help him manage the workflow. The more prepared you can be, the better job that you'll do. So that's what that's going to represent for Ron."

Video: Ron Francis on building Seattle into a contender

McPhee and his staff had two objectives: to the build the best team they could right away and stockpile surplus draft picks. McPhee took the Eastern Conference, McCrimmon the West. They hired a software engineer, used the tools he developed and ran many mock drafts.

Worried about a redistribution of players as teams maneuvered ahead of the expansion draft, they made secret, conditional deals with about 10 teams. That froze the market, and the Golden Knights ended up with some good players they wouldn't have otherwise.

Some teams gave up more than one player to protect others and ended up regretting it. (One team that fared well was the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis, their GM at the time, gave Vegas a fifth-round pick to take forward Connor Brickley.)

"You totally screwed Seattle," Burke told McPhee at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in Toronto on Nov. 12. "When they come in, nobody's going to make any deals. They're going to say, 'Take whoever you want. We're not making any side deals.'"

Well, we'll see.

Vegas' advantage was that the NHL had not expanded since 2000-01, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the League. The Golden Knights were entering alone, so they weren't competing with another team for assets. There was a salary cap for the first time in expansion, and the rules were more favorable for an expansion team than ever before. Seattle's disadvantage will be that NHL teams will have gone through this process recently and will have had more time to maneuver. But Seattle will still enter the NHL alone. There will still be a salary cap. The rules will still be more favorable than they were for expansion teams before Vegas.

Francis said teams might be looking to unload contracts because of salary-cap problems. Others might prefer to give up picks or prospects that might not become NHL players to protect known quantities.

"If you look at the 30 teams that'll be participating, every team will have tremendous experience throughout their upper management in terms of the expansion process and all that goes with it," McCrimmon said. "That's a fundamental difference between Seattle's opportunity and our opportunity.

"In terms of people predicting how much different it's going to be for Seattle and how they build their team, I would say a couple of comments: The teams are going to do what's best for their team. If that is submitting a list and letting Seattle select a player, then that's what they'll do. If they feel that there's benefit to do a deal with Seattle where an extra player can be protected or whatever path those discussions might lead to, then that's what that team is going to do.

"So for people to predict that all 30 teams are just going to send in their list and let Seattle take a player, I don't think that's how it will unfold. And if it does -- and if it does -- then Seattle will have access to some good players. That's how I see it playing out."

Remember too, no one thought Vegas was going to be good after the expansion draft, let alone a team that could reach the Stanley Cup Final. That included the Golden Knights themselves, who took veterans on expiring contracts with the intention of flipping them for assets at the NHL Trade Deadline. Only when they were far better than expected did they change course.

"I remember kind of when they were starting out, their plan was to draft and develop well and be patient," Francis said. "And then things went in a different direction for them in a hurry."

Maybe Seattle will turn out like Vegas originally thought it would. Maybe Seattle will have instant success too. That remains to be seen. But Francis and his staff will go on their own journey.

"I don't think it's fair that anybody compares what Vegas did to what Seattle does," said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, Francis' mentor and predecessor in Carolina. "It varies from case to case. I know that as Ron puts that team together it'll be a successful team, and time will tell. Will it be in the first year? Will it be in the third year? When will it be? I don't know. But he knows how to build a team."

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