When adding staffers, NHL Seattle must navigate complex minefield with those currently under contract elsewhere

By Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times

When it comes to Ron Francis adding staff members, just getting candidates interested isn’t always enough.

Navigating the minefield of poaching employees still under contract to other teams will be a factor for Seattle’s new NHL general manager. After all, many of the more desirable front office and coaching candidates are already working within the NHL.

And when it comes to landing somebody coveted — especially on the coaching front — teams typically aren’t eager to let them go early. Francis himself had still been under contract to the Carolina Hurricanes through July 1, which meant NHL Seattle needed permission to begin the interview process beforehand in order not to waste the summer waiting to acquire him.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, a story we recently published on NHL Seattle possibly having interest in that team’s top analytics specialist, vice-president Eric Tulsky, caused a small stir in North Carolina. Last week, when the Hurricanes renewed the contract of GM Don Waddell, owner Tom Dundon made sure to note at the subsequent press conference that Tulsky had recently signed a multi-year contract with the club.

“I think Tulsky is on a five-year contract right now,” Dundon said. “Don and I really value him, he’s got kids and he wanted security so I gave him a five-year contract.”

But there are always exceptions to the “under contract” roadblock and Tulsky’s case could prove interesting.

A week before GM Waddell was handed his new Hurricanes contract, it looked as he’d bolt to the Minnesota Wild — going so far as to interview with them. Dundon at the time shrugged off suggestions he’d erred by allowing Waddell’s contract to lapse and made some eyebrow-raising comments.

“Even if he had a contract I would let him interview, so what’s the difference?” Dundon said. “It’s not going to stop somebody from doing whatever’s better for them. If they’re going to pay somebody more money, I’m not going to stop them. I told him (Waddell) he’s got to do what’s best for him.”

Which brings us back to Tulsky. If Dundon would have let GM Waddell out of a contract, it stands to reason the same applies to other Hurricanes executives.

So, I asked Dundon last week through Mike Sundheim, the team’s VP of communications, whether Tulsky could get out of his deal if a better opportunity came around. Sundheim took that question to Dundon and then emailed back the next day saying: “We’re just going to say this is ‘an internal discussion.’ “

In other words, it isn’t clear-cut as to whether the Hurricanes would force Tulsky to stay if NHL Seattle came calling. Typically, though, teams aren’t thrilled about letting top people go early.

It’s a little different when employees are in lesser roles. Some front office candidate names NHL Seattle might pursue — professional scouts Ricky Olczyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Sean Burke of the Montreal Canadiens being a couple — are arguably underemployed compared to how Francis might use them.

But it’s unlikely Francis pursues anyone on the coaching front before 2021, given the better candidates are under contract elsewhere.

Seasoned hockey fans remember the fuss during the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals when New York Rangers coach Mike Keenan seemed to be actively negotiating his next job with Detroit and St. Louis. Keenan had only joined the Rangers that season, but he and GM Neil Smith couldn’t stand one another.

Amid the Keenan chaos, the Rangers nearly blew a 3-1 series lead before outlasting the Vancouver Canucks in seven games for their first championship since 1940. When Keenan bolted for St. Louis soon after — claiming Smith breached his deal by being a day late on a bonus payment — the Rangers filed a tampering complaint and were awarded onetime Seattle Thunderbirds junior star Petr Nedved as compensation.

Keenan was suspended 60 days for conduct detrimental to the league.

Interestingly, Rangers GM Smith subsequently claimed Keenan had only been his third choice for the job but took him because top candidates Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour were still under contract to the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, respectively. Keenan was available because the Chicago Blackhawks had just fired him.

So, contracts do matter when it comes to coaches.

With Francis, a few coaching candidates immediately jump to mind. One is former teammate and current Hurricanes bench boss Rod Brind’Amour, an assistant coach when Francis was still GM of that team. Brind’Amour has two seasons left on his contract, which lines him up perfectly to join Francis here after 2020-21.

So, that’s one reason Francis waiting on a coach until spring 2021 plays to his advantage. Brind’Amour just guided the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final so he’s not going anyplace soon but you never know what can happen from one year to the next.

If Carolina misses the playoffs this season — they only made it by three points last spring — the outlook on Brind’Amour remaining there could change big-time.

Another ex-Francis teammate, Mike Vellucci, just left the Hurricanes after winning a title last season as head coach of Carolina’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate to take the same job with the Penguins’ top farm team. Vellucci rejoined his onetime Carolina GM, Jim Rutherford, who now holds the same job in Pittsburgh.

Vellucci wants an NHL head coaching gig but was blocked by Brind’Amour in Carolina. But days after Vellucci joined Pittsburgh, the Pens extended current coach Mike Sullivan by four years.

So, if the Penguins keep making the playoffs, Vellucci could be just as blocked there. And if that’s the case, Francis and Seattle could eventually be his best option.

But the Penguins aren’t about to allow their new AHL coach to bolt right now.

Same with ex-Francis teammate Kevin Dineen, who just got hired to coach the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate. Dineen has already coached in the NHL with Florida and did the same for Francis and Team Canada at the World Hockey Championships this past spring.

His father, Bill, was a longtime Seattle Totems mainstay.

Come early 2021, if Dineen is still an AHL coach, Francis could explore bringing him here. But for now, Dineen is under contract with the Ducks. Plus, it’s not like NHL Seattle needs a coach right away, or wants them sitting around growing stale for two years.

By next spring, if a premium coach gets fired — think Mike Babcock in Toronto — Francis could have a reason to think about an earlier start to his coaching hires. But barring that, waiting this process out until 2021 increases the odds of Francis getting exactly who he wants.