Exclusive: Kraken GM Ron Francis evaluates team performance in disappointing season, looks to big picture

I appreciate you doing this tonight – and I know there are a lot of thoughts out there about where this team is right now. What’s your honest evaluation of where they are?

Well, I think it's certainly not where we were hoping to be. Once we started the season, I think if you go back and look at where we thought we'd be, we thought we'd have one of the better goaltending tandems in the league, we thought our defense would be solid. And we thought if we had a concern, it might be scoring goals. But we certainly felt we'd be a team that would be competitive, and with some bounces and breaks, hopefully we could surprise some people and have a pretty successful year. Unfortunately, to this point, it just hasn't gone the way we had hoped. And, you know, I don't think it's for lack of effort. Our guys are competing and battling hard. We just can't seem to put it all together. When we get saves, we can't score. We score goals, we can't get saves, and we have to find a way to mesh it all to get moving in the right direction.

How tempted have you been to dip into the trade market for short-term fixes?

I think you're always looking at that. I mean, I think the key for us is, does it really make sense at this point to give up a first or second or third round pick to get somebody that, you know, is not really gonna make a significant impact for the short haul?

If there's somebody there that we think makes sense for the organization over time, then that's a different scenario to look at. But just to throw away draft picks - we think it's critical that we build in draft from the ground up. You look at some of the draft picks we have from last year, certainly Matty Beniers comes to the forefront - having a great year at Michigan, was in the World Juniors… unfortunately, that got shut down. But now he's going to represent our country at the Olympics. So, really excited to see Matty in the Olympics. And you know, we think he's got a bright future for our organization moving forward. And that's what we have to continue to do. We have to draft good players and start building from the ground up, as well as trying to add to the trade market and expand the free agent market.

You’ve said the worst thing you could do is panic and change course to the long-term plan. But I’m not sure fans are really privy to a couple things – including the plan itself. We’ve heard "draft well. Develop well." But what exactly IS the plan, and is it two years, three years, five years long?

I think if you go back and read some of the comments that Vegas had when they went into the Expansion Draft, their plan was more or less a five year plan of building and developing and then, some afterwards said they got lucky with the way things went and they went a different direction. 

So, you know, we think we can speed that process up. We think we got a solid core from the draft this summer, and you continue to work on finding ways to add to it. And with cap space. And with money, we certainly think we can be a player in the free agent market. There's always some risk there because you don't know who's going to get there or not when free agency hits, and if they want to sign with you or somebody else. But certainly we think that we can be put in that market.

And then, who knows what happens with COVID affecting the league this year in some of the games - does (the salary cap) stay flat again? Does that affect teams and their ability to sign some of the players or have to move players and then being in a position to take advantage of that also would be beneficial for us. So a lot of things can happen. But you know, for us, the key component for us is drafting the right players and building from the ground up. You look at a lot of successful teams, they do that well. And then as well as doing that, in the meantime, doing everything we can to be competitive and successful by adding players through trades or free agency as well.

The follow-up to that is two-fold…. does ownership have the patience to stick it out, based on this plan, if there’s a continued struggle to win games, as there has been lately? 

The ownership has been great from day one. You know, I wouldn't say we've got a five year plan - that was more of a Vegas said. We're hoping to do this sooner than that. But you know, ownership has been good. They've given the green light to spend to the cap if need be. You know, I think you got to be careful in that regard. Just going out and signing guys for the heck of signing guys. And then when you really need the cap space, you don't have it, it can be critical. So I know it's frustrating. I think our fans have been absolutely tremendous to this point - you come to the building, they're very vocal, very supportive. I think they appreciate the efforts the guys are putting forward. I'm sure they're like us - not happy with the final results. Nobody's more frustrated than our players and staff and management. But, you know, I think as long as they're with us for the ride here, you know, hopefully as we move forward, they're going to see a lot more success. And then that'll make the tougher times even more enjoyable. Once we started having that success year after year.

You touched on my next question - how do you keep fans engaged amidst the struggles? I know no one was expecting Vegas results from Day One. But no one was expecting this either, and there are a lot of people paying a lot of money to attend games! 

There is no question and I think, you know, I think from the way we look at it from our players, I mean, they've been absolutely fantastic. I think you know, we haven't got the results we've wanted. You know, it's not like we haven't been close, and a lot of the games. I think we've given up like 12 empty net goals against or in the game at the end, we just can't get the equalizer or the game winning goal.  I would hope that at least they appreciate the effort and the fact that we're there and we're competitive and hang in there with us for this ride. Because, as we said, we're going to make it better.

The losing streak has overshadowed some bright spots: Jordan Eberle, named an all-star. Jared McCann has had an exceptional year. What are you excited about from what you’ve seen so far? 

I think we saw some things early in the season. You know, we had some tough nights where I thought we deserve to win and couldn't find a way to win. And then we went on a streak there towards the end of November, early December, we're 5-2-1 against some pretty good teams. And then, you know, overnight, starting December 8 through January 3, we lost, I think, 13 players to COVID. And it's just crazy. I mean, the schedule is tough enough as it is. I mean, when you look at the way our schedule schedule lays out, I think we're the second worst schedule in the league this year in regards to teams catching us tired - meaning we have to play back to back nights and they're not playing the night before. So that's a complication. You factor in the Olympic schedule, sort of condensing the schedule. Being a Western team, you don't get as much time to practice as it is… you factor in those two factors you can get in less time, it makes it even harder for your group to come together and understand and work together with each other and stuff. But, you know, I think our guys will continue to work out. I think our coaches have continued to work at it. And you know, I think we need to get a win under our belt here. So hopefully that relieves some of the pressure they're feeling and we can turn this thing around in a different direction.

I know goaltending has been an issue when a lot of folks thought it would be a strength. And I understand that Philipp Grubauer was a Vezina finalist last year. But given the investment and commitment you’ve made longterm, should his play reflect on *your* performance as a general manager more than other players? 

I mean, at the end of the day, the buck stops with me. I’m the one that made the decision. But I certainly feel that Philipp is a better goaltender than he’s showing this year. You can go back and look at some big-name goaltenders – Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury – just to name a couple, and they’ve had seasons where it just hasn’t gone the way they hoped. And certainly in Philipp’s case, you go back the last seven years, five of those seven years, he’s been way better in expected goals against. This year unfortunately, it's gone in the opposite direction. But, you know, we figure he’ll continue to work at it. Hopefully we get better in front of them. And we can we can bounce back with a much better performance moving forward. He's not happy with his game, he would tell you that as well. But we still believe that he has the ability to come back and be a strong goaltender for us.

One reason I ask is because we’ve seen how good Carolina is this season, and a lot of their talent can be attributed to you and your job as GM there. But goaltending has always sort of been an issue when you were in Carolina – is that fair to say? 

Yeah, I haven't had my luck with goaltenders, putting it mildly, for sure, to this point. But, you know, I think we thought, and a lot of people thought, "Well, we had Grubauer and Drieger last summer, that you know, we had a solid 10. And they can be one of the top tandems in the league. Unfortunately it hasn't panned out that way to this point. But that doesn't mean it can't become that moving forward.

You mentioned it before: This team has played well enough to win more games than they have. How much of that comes down to coaching – and what is your measure of a coach’s success in an expansion season? 

Well, I kind of touched on it earlier - it's been pretty hard in a lot of factors. You know, like I said, the Western Conference teams don't get as much practice as they used to begin with because the travel and stuff, we condense the schedule around the Olympics, and then you throw in all the COVID stops and starts - we get to the rink some days, we're expected to practice,  but somebody pops with a COVID case, then we have to shut everything down and get him away from the rink to make sure nobody else has it before we come back and practice.

So it's been a very tough challenge in a lot of different areas. I think if you look at a lot of other GM’s comments, especially in the first 20-25 games, it was really hard to sort of get an evaluation of where you are and what you're doing. And I think our situation hasn't been any different. It's really been tough for our players. That makes it tough for the coaches. Not having the same consistent lineup.

You know, we've iced the lineup of 12 Forwards that we thought we would play this season with, for a grand total of two periods. And with (Brandon) Tanev out for the rest of the year, we're not gonna be able to improve on that. So basically, the 12 forwards we thought we would play every night, we played for two periods this year and losing Tanev hurts, losing (Jaden) Schwartz for six weeks hurts, just because we don't have the depth that other teams have that you mentioned earlier. So it's certainly been a challenge. And I think our coaches will continue to work and battle at it, our players will continue to work and compete. And you know, that's what we want to see moving forward,

You’ll have to excuse me because I’m coming right off of a disappointing NFL season for the Seahawks. But a lot of people saw an underachieving team finish the season really strong, even when they didn’t have anything to play for. And a lot of people give credit to the head coach in a circumstance like that. How much confidence do you have that Dave Hakstol was and is the right person for this job? 

We still have confidence that Dave is and will be the right person for this job. Like I said, it's been unique. And some of the challenges we've got, you know, we're not even at halfway point in the season. So trying to learn the personnel, implement systems. 

You look last night at the game against Los Angeles, I mean, they've been together for a while - they've been playing that 1-3-1 for a lot of years - all their players know it, (but) that's the first time we faced it. I thought we made some really good adjustments coming through the neutral zone so we can attack with possession more so than turning the puck over. You know, that goes back on the coaches and our players, who are willing to continue to work and try and get better. And they're not going to quit doing that. So you know, it's going to be challenging moving forward, especially with where we are and some of the injuries we have, no doubt. But hopefully we can stay healthy and get some bodies back and, you know, continue to battle and fight and get some bounces to go our way and some wins to go in our direction.

You’ve got the trade deadline coming up in a couple months. Are there any untouchables, or is anyone on the roster fair game?

I think looking at where we are, you have to look at everything and assess everything. And, you know, I think if the right offer is there, I mean, you know, it's the old standard line, "Wayne Gretzky got traded, I guess anybody can get traded." But certainly we feel comfortable with our core group. And sort of building around that moving forward. But yeah, it all depends on what the offers are and who you're talking about. But, you know, I would assume that we're open to discussing anybody, depending on what those offers are.

What is the most important value you’re looking for, in terms of a return, at the trade deadline? Is it prospects or draft picks? 

I think it's either-or - the combination, if you can get the right prospect that you think is sort of down the path a little bit. I mean, that's tough for an expansion team to get those guys in that, you know, sort of 21,22, 23 year-old window. So if you find a team that's willing to do a prospect for somebody, I think that certainly helps speed up things. And you're happy to do that. If not, it's getting the best draft pick you can possibly get. And then drafting well and developing well, so you can speed that process up as well getting those guys into you NHL line.

You mentioned Matty Beniers. Do you expect him to join the team after his college season is over – and are there any other draft picks you expect to be competing for roster spots next season? 

Mattie will do the Olympics, head back to Michigan where I think they've got a strong chance to compete for a national title. Once the season is done, we certainly would reach out and hopefully get a contract done and bring them in for the tail part of this season. And then he's got the summer to sort of train and reassess and get to where he needs to get to. But we feel comfortable that he can play in our lineup next year. Always risk you know, there's a lot of pressure on the young kid coming in, and this is a hell of a league. So it doesn't mean he might not have to spend time in Coachella Valley next year, but we're hoping that he can step in and play for us.

You know, Ryker Evans has had a real strong season. He had a great training camp for us. Very mobile defenseman, offensive minded, and moves the puck well. He's got like 30 points in 31 games. He's like one or two in the Western Hockey League in points, so I would say he has an outside chance of cracking the lineup. But again, with young guys you want to make sure - it's better to sort of put them in a situation they can be successful. So when they step in, they're absolutely ready to go, rather than kind of throw them in over their heads and play with their confidence a little bit. So those two guys would be the two guys that probably have the best opportunity going into next season. The other guys have continued to track well, but probably need a little more time before cracking our line.