In fact, it's been an interesting road to and in the OHL for the dimunitive Sting forward. In Francisco's OHL draft year, he was widely considered to be a first round pick, rated 17th by ISS and called "one of the most offensively dangerous players in the draft," with "the best hands of any draft eligible forward." In fact, the only reason he was rated so low at 17 (by ISS) was that Francisco had signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Maine on a scholarship. "When I made the decision to commit to Maine, I was only 14 so when the offer came to me I was so excited that it was hard to deny," says Francisco.
As the history of the OHL Priority Draft has shown us, players with NCAA commitments (or even intent) tend to fall in the draft. But Francisco went higher than he actually anticipated in 2009 (the third round). "When they took me it was unexpected. I actually didn't expect to go that high because of my college commitment and Sarnia had never talked to me before the draft. But when Dave Macqueen called me and told me to please at least come meet with them, I decided I should at least take a trip to their rookie camp, and once I talked to them it really got me thinking hard of which option was best for me," says Francisco.
Score one for the Sting, as they successfully corralled one of the top offensive players in the draft in the third round. But it wasn't all rosy through the first part of the season as Francisco had 7 points in a half a season and was largely struggling with the transition from midget. "(This) was frustrating because I had always scored a lot of points in minor hockey." Francisco not only attributes this to the increased speed of the game and the learning of new systems, but also the strength of the league's veterans. "The players I was playing against were stronger and more physical than myself or the guys I was used to playing against and I needed to learn how to compete much harder so I could win battles and have consistency on each shift."
So what does one do when they feel overwhelmed? "At the break I took lots of time to evaluate the first part of the season and how I was disappointed with not producing more," says Francisco. "I felt I needed to pick up my work ethic in practice and really elevate my level of competitiveness in our games. Because our team wasn't in playoff contention, the coaches gave me the opportunity to play a lot and in key situations so that really helped me develop." Talk about an understatement! Between the first and second half of the season, "The Fluke" (as his agent calls him) increased his point production by about 300%!
Fast forward to the new OHL season, a stronger Francisco (fresh off a 5 day a week training regiment) has picked up right where he left off. Through 21 games, Francisco sits third on the Sting in goals with 8 and a forward best +3 rating. It's the plus rating that Francisco is most proud of. "I am taking pride in playing in the defensive zone and putting a lot of emphasis on my plus/minus statistic and I think if I keep doing that, the scoring statistics will come along (even more) as well."
While the Sting may be improved from last year, they're still struggling to find the consistency required of a top end playoff team. Currently they sit 7th in the Western Conference playoff race, but the 8th place Plymouth Whalers are hot on their tail. But the standings are not preventing Francisco from receiving more attention. That falls on the acquisition of two superstar young forwards who've taken the OHL by storm; Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk. These two OHL rookies have scouts drooling for 2012 (their draft year). But Francisco was coy when asked if he felt he was being overshadowed; "Other players deserve the media attention that they're getting. I just try and be the best player that I can be and hopefully I will get my recognition too. At the end of the day it's really about how the team is doing and if we are all playing our game and our team is doing well than the individual attention will come my way too." Ain't that the truth. Just ask Vincent Trocheck. He's roughly the same size as Francisco and only has one more goal on the season, yet was recently ranked 5th overall in the OHL by NHL Central Scouting (Francisco wasn't ranked). Trocheck's team (the Saginaw Spirit) is currently the best team in the Western Conference and he's played a large role in that success.
If the Sarnia Sting can start to play more consistently and inch their way up the Western Conference standings (they're currently only 2 points away from home ice advantage in the first round), will Francisco start to receive his due? The obvious answer is, only if he's a big part of that success. When in fact, the sky is the limit and if he keeps improving, he'll be a big part of Sarnia's success not just this year, but over the next few years on an potential Memorial Cup caliber team. With 5 goals and 2 assists in his last 7 games, I don't anticipate that being a problem. That's no fluke!
(See below for my Q & A with Francisco)
Brock Otten: Back in your OHL Draft year, it was believed that you were heading to the University of Maine. Why were you originally planning on going to the NCAA and not the OHL?
Brandon Francisco: When I made the decision to commit to Maine, I was only 14 so when the offer came to me I was so excited that it was hard to deny. That partly played a role. I also enjoyed watching NCAA hockey; it was fast and exciting and the crowd and the students section really got into it. It was also really good for educational purposes, which my parents strongly encourage so I felt that was the option I wanted to go with at the time.
BO: So when Sarnia took you in the 3rd round of the priority draft, what were you thinking? How long did it take Sarnia to convince you to take the OHL route?
BF: When they took me it was unexpected. I actually didn't expect to go that high because of my college commitment and Sarnia had never talked to me before the draft, but when Dave Macqueen called me and told me to please at least come meet with them I decided I should at least take a trip to their rookie camp. Once I talked to them it really got me thinking hard of which option was best for me. I did always love the OHL and grew up watching it so it was a big decision to make with two great options in front of me. But after talking to the coaches and owners a couple of times and recognizing the schooling I would get there and that it was a great city and great League I thought it was the best decision for me.
BO: What was the main factor in choosing Sarnia over Maine and are you happy with your decision now?
BF: The main factor for me was the opportunity of playing with some of the best players my age in the best development league in the world right away and to be able to get good schooling paid for if pro hockey didn't work out. That sealed it for me.
BO: The start of the 2009-10 season was pretty rough for you statistically. Was the transition from midget to the OHL as hard as it appears it was for you? What were the biggest differences?
BF: Yeah, I started off pretty slow which was frustrating because I had always scored a lot of points in minor hockey. The transition was pretty big because the game was so much faster and the players were a lot smarter and quicker moving the puck. There were also new systems to learn that I was never exposed to in minor hockey, and I had to learn to be quick in my decision making while playing at a high end tempo. But I think the major reason I started out slow was that the players I was playing against were stronger and more physical than myself or the guys I was used to playing against and I needed to learn how to compete much harder so I could win battles and have consistency on each shift in order to be successful.
BO: But then in the New Year, you really started to produce offensively and finished the season on a strong note. What was the turning point for you? Was there a specific game or moment where everything started to click.
BF: At the break I took lots of time to evaluate the first part of the season and how I was disappointed with not producing more. I felt I needed to pick up my work ethic in practice and really elevate my level of competitiveness in our games. Because our team wasn't in playoff contention, the coaches gave me the opportunity to play a lot and in key situations so that really helped me develop. I also started learning that the game at the OHL level is not all about scoring and that I needed to learn how to do the little things right. I think the turning point of my season was my first game after the break when I scored a goal in the first period and after that game I really picked up my confidence and energy level.
BO: Going into the offseason, I’m sure the goal was to try and start the 2010-2011 season as strong as you finished the last. What did you do in the summer to try and prepare for your sophomore season?
BF: Yeah , I spent the offseason working to get stronger and bigger and to round out my game because I knew there was a lot I needed to improve on. I was working out 5 days a week with my trainer and a couple times a week with an on ice skills coach Jari Byrski. I tried to get a lot stronger and put on weight. I felt that was an area I needed to improve on and also continue to work on the accuracy of my shot and my lateral skating.
BO: How do you think the start of this season has gone for you?
BF: I feel like I've had a pretty good start to the season ,but I can do even better and keep improving throughout the year and help my team more. I think I've rounded out my game a bit more and am playing with more confidence. I am taking pride in playing in the defensive zone and putting a lot of emphasis on my plus/minus statistic and I think if I keep doing that the scoring statistics will come along as well.
BO: The Sting have definitely improved from last season, but you’re still on the bubble as a playoff team. The good thing is that it’s still early in the season. Do you (and the rest of the Sting) have a lot of confidence moving forward that this is a playoff caliber club?
BF: Yeah, I believe we have a lot of upside as a team and a lot of good players. We have good coaching and we're mentally into every game we play and we play intense hockey. We're still a very young team, so we make our share of mistakes which has sometimes cost us some games we could have won, but we have firepower and we are pretty sound defensively. I think we'll improve every game and start winning more close games and have a very good chance of making the playoffs.
BO: When you see yourselves playing .500 hockey and you’re on the bubble for the playoffs and then you look to the Eastern Conference and see a team well below .500 in the playoffs, is that at all frustrating?
BF: Those are things you can't really control. It is a bit frustrating realizing your doing better then many teams in the other conference, but still fighting so hard to earn a playoff spot because of all the good teams in our conference. At the same time it pushes you to keep working harder as a team and become even better. We have some very good teams in our conference but our team has the ability to play with any of them so if we keep playing with intensity and consistency we'll find ourselves in the playoffs and then who knows what can happen after that.
BO: I have to ask you about the two new additions to your club that everyone is talking about; Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk. We’ve all seen them play, but tell us something about both of them that not many people know about.
BF: Yeah ,they're very special players that are dangerous every time they're on the ice. They work hard in practice and games and are extremely skilled. It helps being able to play with guys like them and they have helped make our team much better this season.
BO: Speaking of those two, do you think you’re currently being overshadowed by them? I mean Sarnia has such a talented young roster and you’re currently third in goals for the team…yet we don’t hear a lot about you in the media. Is that at all frustrating for you personally?
BF: It is always nice to hear yourself talked about in the media, but I mean it's not a big deal. Other players deserve media attention that they're getting. I just try and be the best player that I can be and hopefully I will get my recognition too, but its not that important for me. I am kind of a low key guy anyways and at the end of the day it's really about how the team is doing and if we are all playing our game and our team is doing well then the individual attention will come my way too.
BO: What do you think are your biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses at this point as you move forward to a possible career in the NHL.
BF: I would say my biggest strengths are my skating speed and balance, my vision, my puckhandling and passing skills, and now my shot has become a real strength. I try and make things happen with the puck and use my skating to create scoring chances. My weaknesses I would say is that I need to compete harder physically and keep improving and learning how to play without the puck . I think there's always room to improve on everything and I'm trying to round out my game to be able to play at the next level.
BO: What about size? As someone who is under 6’0, do you think that hinders your chances at an NHL career, or do you look at the immediate success that someone like Jeff Skinner is having right now and say that the NHL has changed and smaller players can succeed.
BF: Yeah, being over 6'0 could be an advantage but I think skill and smarts are more important than size. I believe if you can skate and compete really hard and see the ice well and be a complete player with something special to offer, it doesn't matter what size you are because you can be an effective player in the NHL.
BO: Is there an NHL player you try to pattern your game after?
BF: I really try and pattern my game after Pavel Datsyuk. He's a very skilled player with great hands and patience. He sees the ice amazingly, and has great defensive anticipation to steal pucks and pick off passes, which is something I really need to improve on. Thats why every chance I get I try to watch him play to learn from him. Like myself, he also wasn't a physical player when he was younger but he's developed into a really good body checker and plays with much more grit too, so I would like to develop my game the same way as he did.
BO: In speaking with your agent, he says his nickname for you is “Fluke.” Can you shed some light on that one for us?
BF: Haha yeah that's a funny story. The agent firm I am with, Eclipse, represents lots of European players including Alex Kovalev and the first time my agent Brian Feldman saw me play, he thought for sure that I was European trained because I have a pretty unique style of skating and stickhandling for a Canadian player. But when he found out that I had never been trained by a European coach before and that my style of play was just natural for me he gave me the nickname "Fluke". He's always saying that I'm a Portugese, Brazillian, Canadian who plays like a Russian. He's done a really good job advising me and helping me develop my game.
BO: Could you also shed some light on the whole birth date/NHL draft eligibility fiasco. How exactly did it come to pass that so many people and publications had you as 2012 eligible.
BF: Yeah that was a very weird scenario. At first I didn't realize why that was happening but then when I looked at the OHL Draft Media Guide it said 11/02/1993 instead of 02/11/1993 which would mean I was born in November instead of February making me a late birthdate and the Sting went by the Media guise and published that on the website at first until everything was straightened out and I guess it all just started from there. I think are still some scouts and scouting services that think I'm a 2012.
BO: It’s been pretty easy to see that the OHL has been a huge supporter of the whole “Movember” thing. Who on the Sting has the best stache going right now?
BF: Well there is a lot of good ones on the team but, I'd have to give it to Brent Sullivan. He has a really long one with a goater as well and exceptionally long hair so I think that combo has to give it to him.
BO: Lastly, the NHL draft is still months away, but I’m wondering if you have any goals for that? Some players are just happy to be picked, while others have a specific round target. Where does your goal lie?
BF: Yeah , I think it's an honour just to be drafted into the NHL and I'd be extremely happy for accomplishing that. But I think it's important to have goals to work towards and to try and go as high as possible. I guess my draft goal would be to get picked in the top 3 rounds.
Thanks a lot to Brandon and his agent Brian Feldman for taking the time to contribute.