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First and Future GM

Sep 16, 2023

As Ron Francis was fielding phone calls from several NHL teams about a general manager role in the late spring of 2019, one suitor quickly moved into first position.

"When I went through the process, the more I spent time out here in the city and get to know what the job was all about," said Francis back in mid-July 2021 the day before he was officially announced as then-NHL Seattle GM, "and the more time I spent with the people involved, meeting the ownership group, it quickly went from a 'why?' to a 'why not?' The opportunity to be the first general manager for this franchise is extremely humbling."

Francis, of course, is a Hall of Fame player who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and is second all-time in assists behind only Wayne Gretzky. He joked during the exclusive interview and again when meeting the Seattle media the next morning that hockey executives agree it would be best to be hired as the second general manager for the now-Kraken. That's because the first one would have to live up to the first-season expectations set by Vegas when it entered the league as the NHL's 31st franchise in 2017.

Anyone who knows and admires Francis - and the count is overwhelming, not just hockey circles - understands he brings humility and wry humor to his professional role and to his life. Example: A certain reporter flubbed a line of questioning during the July 2019 press conference and Francis quickly and lightly said, "Easy for you to say, Bob." You know the relationship is heading in the right direction when a bit of ribbing is involved.

But make no mistake about Francis' competitive nature, which he first fashioned into a remarkable playing career soon followed with learning all facets of running hockey operations for an NHL franchise. Rather than be an ambassador-type, Francis embraced assistant and associate roles in the player development, scouting, coaching, and front office areas before stepping in as GM for the Carolina Hurricanes franchise.

Four years later into the Kraken GM's five-year deal with Seattle, Francis' contract was extended three more seasons this week. He's been talking about the extension with Tod Leiweke and the ownership group since early 2023 and is now signed through the 2026-27 season.

That naming of a second GM of the Kraken will have to wait. And whoever is hired will have to live up to the high bar that Francis has already set in two years of preparation for NHL play and the two seasons that have followed.

Colleague Alison Lukan reported on the signing earlier this week and made a convincing case for Francis' success in building a highly competitive Kraken team that projects as a playoff contender again next spring and beyond. All this just two seasons into team history with a likely rookie-of-the-year winner, Matty Beniers, and undrafted 22-year-old Tye Kartye, playing big roles in the postseason run.

Perhaps even more impressive, the Kraken prospect pipeline is already considered top third in the league with just two NHL drafts completed by Francis and his hockey operations group. As it stands, the team has 10 more picks for the 2023 NHL Draft on June 28 and 29.

That's one part of the GM equation: Building an ongoing winner while stocking the player development system, which includes American Hockey League all-star rookie defenseman Ryker Evans (2021 second-rounder) and 2022 No. 4 overall pick Shane Wright, plus Kartye and young Finns Ville Petman and Peetro Seppala, playing regular and valuable minutes for the AHL affiliate Coachella Valley. The Firebirds have already advanced to the fourth round of the Calder Cup Playoffs and stand 2-2 in a best-of-seven Western Conference championship series going into Saturday's Game 5.

Another major element is getting the fan base engaged and establishing a home-ice advantage. Francis will be the first one to credit the Kraken organization for its brand work and the incomparable, one-of-a-kind Climate Pledge Arena as pillars of fan loyalty and decibel-heavy excitement, but there's nothing more effective to widely unlock a fan base than winning a playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion and playing two Game 7s and six home playoff dates in just the second season. It's feasible the Kraken can win a Stanley Cup sooner versus later. For his part, Francis has won favor with local fans in short order.

"Ultimately the success of the organization is the sum of all the parts, right?" said Francis in a sitdown a couple of days after the Kraken postseason ended. "The [amateur scouting] staff, they get the credit for the prospects we have drafted and for signing [undrafted free agents] like Tye out of juniors."

"The pro [scouting] staff is involved in all free agent signings and trades, plus waiver wires. The R and D [research and development/data analytics] team is involved in both sides. You put your team together and then Dave [Hakstol] and his staff, take over to manage the players and get them to play the way that we want to play. A lot of people did a lot of good things to get us to this point."

There is a lot to unpack in the inner workings of an NHL team's "hockey ops" group. With Francis in charge, there is an open-door policy to invite all staffers to provide their opinions and projections. Claiming forward Eeli Tolvanen on waivers is an example: Francis said the pro scouts and research and development analysts both made strong pitches to pick up a former first-round pick who became a scoring threat and strong two-player on a line with Yanni Gourde and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Certain media members questioned Francis' selections in the 2021 expansion draft (with Vegas comparisons as debate material) while others in media and even a few executives in the sport itself wondered if Dave Hakstol was the right coach. It's safe to say, wrong, way wrong, on both counts. Vince Dunn was the pick from St. Louis and now gets widespread media raves for his breakout 2022-23 season while the selection from Toronto, Jared McCann, was the first player Francis re-signed to a contract extension and was rewarded with the elite shooter's just completed 40-goal regular season.

As for the Hakstol choice, there's no arguing against the results of the second year. Just to put an exclamation point on it, the Kraken head coach is a finalist for the NHL's Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.

"Dave is extremely hard working and he's also extremely honest," said Francis. "My wife [Mary Lou] once told me 'if you don't lie, you don't have to remember what you said.'

"As a former player, I would rather know and hear the truth than have to deal with it or find a way to fix it, rather than somebody not telling me straight. Dave's been very upfront, very honest with the players. I think guys know you earn your opportunity in our lineup and, if you do, you get rewarded. He's done a real good job of having conversations with not only our leadership group but guys up and down the lineup, building those relationships, on the ice, in practice or games, and off the ice in the locker room too."

With nearly 20 legitimate prospects already in the Kraken pipeline and a current roster that was one of just five NHL teams playing after Memorial Day, success figures to beget success. Equally, success begets higher expectations. Francis and his hockey operations group are busy this month readying for the upcoming draft and the NHL free agency when teams and players can officially talk starting at 9 a.m. Pacific July 1. While Francis will no doubt consider free-agent moves (last July he landed Andre Burakovsky, Justin Schultz, and Martin Jones), the draft is a primary focus.

"We've only had two drafts, right?" said Francis "We're still in the infancy stage. We've only had Matty play in the NHL this year, which is quite the accomplishment and Ryker played in the AHL this year. All of our other guys [2021 draft choices] really can't get into the [professional] ranks until next season. Then the guys who were drafted last summer are still, for the most part, two years away from getting there.

"It takes time to build, but we've been pleased with our prospects and what they've done to this point. With 10 more picks in this year's draft. we feel we will get more good players. We've talked from day one about that, the importance of building from the ground up. As we build and shape this franchise moving forward, we think that's an integral part. So far it looks like it's going in the right direction."