There are 224 picks in an NHL draft, and every single pick knows that it is exceedingly difficult to progress from their draft day and make it to playing on the biggest stage in hockey. Some prospects dazzle on the ice and earn themselves a contract, while others simply fizzle out. It’s rare to see a player put up big numbers in a major league and still not earn a contract though, which is what happened to Ryan Francis this week.
The June 1, 2022 deadline for the Calgary Flames to retain his rights has come and gone, and Francis was not retained by the team. This decision was a bit of a surprise given his numbers over the last three years in the QMJHL, both with the Cape Breton Eagles and with the Memorial Cup hosting Saint John Sea Dogs.
What ended up happing with the Flames and Francis? Let’s dive into it.
Ryan Francis’ development as a prospect
The Flames found Francis in the fifth round of the 2020 NHL draft, selecting him after putting up 72 points in 61 games in his second year as a pro. He finished third on the team that year and 17th in the league in points, playing on a line with budding pro Yegor Sokolov (now with the Ottawa Senators), and Shawn Boudrias (now in the ECHL). Going into the draft, Francis was described as an excellent playmaker and great glue-piece on a line, but a player who was likely carried by two much better linemates.
On top of that, Francis is a smaller player, standing just 5’9″, but he has never played small. He is an active forechecker, plays hard in the corners, and is tough to play against in the offensive zone. These are all hallmarks of his game that no doubt stood out to the Flames when they drafted him.
The following season, with Sokolov and Boudrias gone, Francis put up a massive season, with 50 points in a pandemic-shortened 32 game season. This was good for sixth in the entire QMJHL, ahead of 2019 first-round pick Jakob Pelletier. Francis finished second in points-per-game among all drafted players in the Q behind just Dawson Mercer, a New Jersey Devils prospect, with 1.56 points-per-game split between the Eagles and Sea Dogs. He also finished seventh in The Win Column’s annual prospect rankings.
This season, Francis had one of the best training camps of all Flames’ prospects and was sent to Stockton to spend the first part of the season. This is where things began to take a turn. Francis featured in just four games with the Stockton Heat, and spent most of his time working with the team in practice before being returned to the Sea Dogs for the remainder of the season.
When he went back to Saint John, Francis started off the year really slowly, but once he got rolling, he just didn’t stop. He finished this season again over a point-per-game with 65 points in 54 games, good for 28th in the league in points-per-game. His slow start definitely was a factor in this, but he more than made up for it.
The Sea Dogs ended up getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, and Francis put up two points in five games. The team hosts the Memorial Cup this year, and will be looking for some revenge after their dreadful postseason.
Why was Francis not re-signed
It seems a bit bizarre that Francis wasn’t re-signed this year after the numbers he has put up in his time in the Q. While nobody is speaking publicly, the most likely answer is that the Flames did not believe that his game would transition effectively to the next level. After keeping him in the AHL for a couple of months this previous fall and only getting him into four games, it looked like the Flames were not convinced of his ability to translate his production to the professional ranks.
On top of that, as a 20-year-old, Francis should have not only been above a point-per-game in the Q, he should have been absolutely dominating the league this year. He should have been making it look easy. While he was on a very stacked Sea Dog’s team, his production did not jump off the page, and he was not able to be the driving force on his team. Francis was very good no doubt, but there are definitely questions about whether he was elite at this stage of the game.
There is also the question of what Francis brings to the Flames’ prospect pool that they do not already have. He’s a smaller right-shot right wing playmaker who can put up points and scores reasonably well. In the depth chart outside the NHL, the Flames have Adam Ruzicka (arguably somewhere between the AHL and NHL), Martin Pospisil, Eetu Tuulola, Walker Duehr, and new signee Adam Klapka who all can play right wing in the AHL. There is also a chance the Flames retain at least one of Justin Kirkland or Glenn Gawdin, who are both UFAs this year. Then there’s Matt Coronato and Jack Beck who are still unsigned and likely both ahead of Francis.
At this point, assuming nobody earns a full-time job in the NHL, the Heat have eleven forward prospects already under team control for next year not even factoring for Gawdin, Kirkland, or any other veterans to be added to the list. There simply was not going to be a role for Francis to succeed. Even with the Flames losing Dmitry Zavgorodniy to Russia, the odds of them finding a real spot for Francis in Stockton were pretty slim.
Teams are also limited to just 50 contracts at any given time, and while they have only used 25 of their 50 to this point, after factoring in for re-signing big pieces like Matthew Tkachuk, smaller pieces like Matthew Phillips, and filling in the bulk of their lineup, the team will likely be back up to the 48 or 49 contract number. Is probably makes more sense to have an extra contract available to take on a contract in a trade as opposed to be strapped right to the limit by using one on Francis.
What happens with Francis now?
Francis now becomes a free agent, with the Flames losing their exclusive right to sign him as of June 1. He is no longer eligible for junior hockey, having played his 20-year-old season and can now sign wherever he wishes. Many CHL prospects opt to join the Canadian USports league, playing for a university program and earning a degree before seeing what else is out there. The Flames found Luke Philp and former Flame Derek Ryan out of the University of Alberta Golden Bears program, and the Sea Dogs will be coached in the Memorial Cup by the Head Coach of the University of New Brunswick Reds’ Gardiner MacDougall. There is a good chance Francis goes this route.
He can also be signed to a contract by another NHL, AHL, or ECHL team to join their programs, and with his production level, there is a chance he earns a look elsewhere. He will have to do a lot of hard work to get up to the next level, but he has always been described as a slower-developing prospect who projects similarly to Paul Byron. If he can put in the work and continue to develop, he may yet have a future in this league.
In any case, we wish him nothing but the best.
Photo credits: NHL.com