Checkers find familiar partner in Kraken’s Francis

by Patrick Williams

A familiar face in a new role means more help for the Charlotte Checkers this fall.

The expansion Seattle Kraken will partner with the Florida Panthers to place their prospects with Charlotte for the 2021-22 season in an agreement announced Monday.

Seattle’s new agreement with the Charlotte reunites the Checkers with Kraken general manager Ron Francis. The Checkers and Francis spent seven seasons together when Charlotte was affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis worked in a variety of rules during that span, including serving three seasons as Charlotte’s general manager.

For Francis and Seattle, the arrangement provides a ready-made AHL operation for the organization as it begins its first season as the NHL’s 32nd club. The Kraken are awaiting the construction of a new 10,000-seat arena in Palm Desert, Calif., that is expected to be ready for the 2022-23 season. Along with prospects, Seattle will be able to station an assistant coach to work with Charlotte head coach Geordie Kinnear, who is a member of the Florida organization.

“I think the biggest thing for us when we looked at this was trying to find a location and an organization we could work with,” Francis said of the process. “We wanted to try to reach an agreement where we could put all our players in one spot rather than put three here and four there and spread it out. And in conversations with [Panthers general manager] Bill Zito and the Florida Panthers, they were willing to work with us on that front.”

“And obviously, their fit with Charlotte, [I am] very familiar with that ownership group there and [Checkers owner and Chief Executive Officer] Michael Kahn and his staff and the type of work that they do. So, [I] really appreciate Bill in Florida working with us on this and excited to be back working with Michael and Charlotte.”

Said Kahn, “I’m very excited, of course, being with Florida. But working again with Ron Francis is exciting as well as we worked for many years together with the Hurricanes organization.”

Florida had signed an affiliation deal with Charlotte’s new NHL parent club in September 2020 and will remain with the Checkers when Seattle prospects eventually head to the Coachella Valley. Such an arrangement is familiar to Zito and the Panthers, who teamed with the Tampa Bay Lightning this past season to place prospects with the Syracuse Crunch.

“We had a real great experience this year with Tampa and know the interaction, the learning different ways of doing things,” Zito said. “Just [on a] day-to-day basis learning from each other is probably the biggest benefit that we get. That interaction and the shared ideas [are] wonderful.”

Francis spoke with several NHL organizations to find the right fit. And while Charlotte and Seattle are located at opposing ends of the hockey map, there are six direct flights between the two cities daily to facilitate player movement.

“We’re hoping maybe get eight [players] at a minimum [in Charlotte], 12 at a maximum, as far as players in there,” Francis outlined.

“Obviously hoping to maybe get a coach on the bench as part of the staff as well and sort of keep an eye on our guys and be there for questions and stuff. But our conversations with Bill in Florida were great right from the start. And I think maybe [the Panthers] going through that process last year with Syracuse, they understood kind of how it could work. The conversations went real smoothly and real quickly, and we’re just thrilled to be partnered up with them and have this opportunity next season.”

Zito’s experience working with Tampa Bay and Syracuse left him confident that a similar arrangement could work in Charlotte. So did his organization’s relationships with Seattle personnel.

“It just takes a lot of communication,” Zito stated. “Obviously, we have a pretty good working relationship. I’ve known Ronnie a long time. And [Florida head coach Joel Quenneville has] known Ron a long time.

“[Panthers assistant general manager] Paul Krepelka has worked with the Carolina folks for awhile. Geordie, he’s been there for awhile. So I think relationship-wise, friendship-wise, professionally, we’ll all just work together and make it work.”