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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: Kraken GM Ron Francis can’t afford misstep on Dave Hakstol decision

Dave Hakstol led the Seattle Kraken into the Western Conference semifinals a year ago, but his team missed the playoffs this season.  (Tribune News Service)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Various opinions are floating around about the Seattle Kraken’s handling of Dave Hakstol and his coaching staff .

Namely, how inconsiderate it looks having coaches twist in the wind, uncertain about fates. Well, I’d say this is pretty common for the NHL, though not something we in Seattle see often with the NFL and MLB. All sports are different. The NFL places far more importance on individual games, so it doesn’t take all that long to figure out how things are working with a particular coach.

In baseball, the 162-game schedule is so long that teams often know by midsummer whether they are making a change and prepare accordingly. It’s become tougher in MLB because three wild -card spots in each league allow more teams to stay in playoff races than was the case with one wild card just more than a decade ago.

But gauging coach success in hockey combines the most difficult aspects of those other sports. NHL parity engineered through the salary cap, extra standings points for overtime losses and half the teams making the playoffs ensures difficulty in labeling seasons a “success” or “failure” up to the final weeks.

The Nashville Predators, for instance, weren’t looking so hot halfway through and there was talk they’d trade star goalie Juuse Saros by the March 7 deadline. But now, courtesy of a late 18-game points streak nobody really saw coming, they are in the playoffs.

Also, unlike football, there is less emphasis on each of 82 hockey games. But unlike baseball, hockey general managers have only half the games of a typical MLB team with which to gauge a coach’s body of work along with looser playoff entry that can salvage seasons out of the blue.

Throw it all together, NHL teams often can’t start preparing head coach replacements months in advance. No one granting a two-year extension to Hakstol last summer envisioned we’d arrive at where his departure is now even up for discussion.

But it is. General manager Ron Francis announced he’s putting off a decision on Hakstol and his staff until after a full review the next few weeks.

“Well, you’re going to read into it one way or the other,” Francis said Monday after I asked him at his season-ending news conference whether he’d confirm Hakstol’s return. “But this is the process we do every year.”

Well, technically they do this process. But the Kraken needed only two days to relieve goaltending coach Andrew Allen of his duties following their debut season two years ago, announcing it at a joint news conference held by Francis and Hakstol together.

Last spring, three days after their playoff elimination in Dallas, Francis and Hakstol were again seated together and already negotiating his contract extension. The separate news conferences by Hakstol on Saturday and Francis on Monday were not business as usual.

That’s because Francis knows the discussion about Hakstol didn’t end with last summer’s contract extension. It has now begun anew.

And that discussion is taking place because pro sports teams don’t operate in a vacuum. If this was hockey-obsessed Toronto or Montreal, it’s doubtful Hakstol would have lasted beyond mid-March.

Our own Seattle market isn’t an NHL town in that regard, but that still carries with it a different urgency. The Kraken exist with two other major professional teams in the Seahawks and Mariners, a college football Huskies team often treated like a major pro squad, as well as next-tier pro – in terms of economics – Sounders and Storm clubs and then other assorted teams such as Reign FC, or Seawolves rugby.

There’s a lot going on in Seattle and the Kraken aren’t registering enough. They’ve barely registered at all the past few months despite having the market nearly to themselves.

Nothing is unfixable, but it can’t keep happening. And now, having failed to build off the thrill of last spring’s playoffs, the Kraken need a reset to revive positive energy around their product.

Whether that involves swapping out Hakstol for a new coach will be debated by fans, pundits and – more important – Kraken executives and owners from here.

But the Kraken, if indeed inclined toward change, must get their new coach lined up. Remember, this team, courtesy of a franchise-record 11-0-2 points streak in January, hung around the fringes of contention until mid-March.

Had they fallen apart for good in December, they might have firmly committed to replacing Hakstol. Instead, the season still hanging in the balance well into the New Year, those calls got put off. And now, it’s possible any coaching replacements they’d want are tied up with playoff teams.

The Buffalo Sabres last week fired coach Don Granato at season’s end. But they had former New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff – a onetime Sabres player and coach of their last Stanley Cup finalist squad in 1999 – lined up as Granato’s replacement, announcing it Monday.

It’s different with the Kraken. If they want Rod Brind’Amour with Carolina or assistant coach Joe Sacco with Boston, they need to wait for their teams’ playoff runs to end. Or, if those names eventually fall through, maybe the Kraken go with unemployed coaches Craig Berube, Dean Evason, Gerard Gallant, or Todd McLellan.

But they likely don’t have anyone secured. And with so many open NHL coaching spots already, you don’t want to risk creating another and get left scrambling for a leftover warm body. The only reason to replace Hakstol is if you think you’ll be getting somebody better. Not all of what happened this season was Hakstol’s fault.

Hakstol and Francis didn’t sit together at Monday’s news conference because of potentially awkward optics when the GM inevitably was asked to give his coach a vote of confidence. A vote he isn’t ready to give.

Fact is, Hakstol is now the second-longest-tenured coach in the Western Conference and sixth longest in the league. NHL coaches these days rarely get more than three seasons to establish winning momentum.

GMs get longer, given they control the system of play and franchise vision at all levels. Replacing a GM for the wrong reasons can set a team back years. But Francis, regardless of some promising young pipeline prospects, also won’t have unlimited time to get the big Kraken club more positively aligned with the franchise’s market goals.

Whatever his Hakstol decision, Francis needs it to result in his own Kraken vision becoming more of a finished product.