Ruminating on Cody Franson’s future

Cody Franson’s name has circulated in trade winds (Steve’s post | Jeff’s post) over the last week and some people are really freaking out about it. Perhaps for a reason, perhaps not. I’m of the camp that the Leafs are in a tight salary cap position, but they’ll be find if they get Franson and Nazem Kadri under contract for $7-million apiece, win their arbitration case against Mark Fraser and demote him, Trevor Smith and Korbinian Holzer and skate just 20 players. What can go wrong, right?

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If you assume the Leafs won’t get hurt at all this season or tired, and two-thirds of the roster play 82 games, like Anthony Petrelli points out, the opening day roster can be seen as an upgrade to last year’s. Unfortunately, the team will have little depth if they fail to trade John-Michael Liles, and if Mark Fraser’s arbitration award comes in at more than $900K, any demotion of his will count against the cap a little. The team can ill-afford to see Franson or Kadri come in at more than our projected amounts (Franson was at $2.8-million and Kadri at $3.5-million, but Carl Gunnarsson’s deal was a little more than our $2.8-million projection, as was Jonathan Bernier) and every $100K counts during this season.

If to get around that, the Leafs need to trade Franson… well, what is he worth?

While a lot has been made about Franson being 8th in the NHL in points and having more than David Clarkson at even strength and what have you, it’s just as worth pointing out that Franson’s excellent season was a bit of an anomaly. His PDO was 104.0, a number that’s unlikely to repeat itself seeing as only two players, Daniel Sedin and Evgeni Malkin, have multiple seasons since 2007-2008 with PDO numbers (addition of shooting and save percentages) of 103.5. Franson was on the ice for a lot of the time during Kadri’s little scoring bump during this past season, and moved up to the second-pairing and got to play with Phil Kessel when he was streaking towards the end of the season. Not many defencemen have had the season that Franson had offensively over an 82-game campaign, so we’ll chalk his 29-point season up to “statistical anomaly”.

Still, as I pointed out after Franson went un-signed into the lockout, he was just one of two Leafs defencemen with a positive Corsi rate in 2011-2012 despite being underused. He’s a great No. 4 or No. 5 guy and could move up the depth chart over the course of a long deal since he’ll be 26 going into next season. I wouldn’t buy up a tonne of UFA years here, and Franson is negotiating from a position of strength coming off such a strong season and I find it interesting he didn’t exercise his opportunity to elect salary arbitration since it would guarantee him a one-year contract and the chance to maximize his salary as a UFA, so I think he lost some leverage by not doing so.

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As far as it goes, I think he’s overrated offensively because his 1.46 points per 60 last season is just not a rate sustained by human defencemen. His on-ice shooting percentage of 13.61% was a ways higher than his career rate of 9.26% at that point. He has had some offensively ability in the past but it’s been inconsistent between seasons and I doubt he’s elite offensively.

That said, he’s defensively quite underrated in my mind. Over his four-year career, opponents have averaged 0.741 goals per 20 minutes, but that’s just 0.688 against Franson. Seeing as he played two seasons during Nashville’s peak as a defensive team and two seasons with the defensively inept Toronto Maple Leafs, I think some things average out. His teammates allowed 0.780 goals against per 20 minutes with him not on the ice so I’d like to think that Franson generally improves his team’s defensive fortunes, although that said, Franson has gotten some pretty easy minutes. The 0.741 goals per 20 minutes is 180th out of 186 qualified defencemen over the last four seasons. [linky link for stats. Thanks to David for having one of hockey’s indispensible resources on the web]

Which is why I think he has more value as a sheltered pairing defenceman with Jake Gardiner than as a top four shutdown guy with Mark Fraser, which is how Randy Carlyle tried to use him in the second half of last season. He’s more physical than he gets credit for and has done a very good job at shutting down the weak competition he faces and restricting shots and goals against. He’s fun to watch work on the powerplay and a genuinely likeable guy.

I’d waver at paying more than $3-million for a third pairing player, but he’s never had a Relative Corsi rating of below +5.1 and over the last two seasons, he’s played more than 14 minutes a night at evens. Given the Leafs’ need to take more of the defensive burden away from Dion Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, I’d be quite comfortable testing the waters and seeing how Franson handles those minutes away from Fraser. (Not to say Randy Carlyle would do that, but I think he should at least give it a shot).

Most importantly, Franson is the best right-shooting defenceman the Leafs have, and it’s not like right-shooting defencemen come along every day. You can never have too many puck-moving defenceman, said another real smart coach everybody seems to respect, and I think he’s a player worth overpaying in the short-term for long-term potential and to account for the fact you have no replacement for. Other than Holzer, Andrew MacWilliam and Jesse Blacker are the only two right-shooting defencemen on the Marlies that have feasible NHL potential. (Commenter Punchy points out on Twitter that Petter Granberg could be on that list.)

I see potential for bigger and better things for Franson here, and given how much space the Leafs had to upgrade their roster and re-sign their restricteds at the start of the free agency period, it really is a shame that they could lose a good young defenceman because they left garbage everywhere in the roster and let a lot of little mistakes turn into really big ones.

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Nonis’ mettle as a manager will be tested here. I was never really in favour of a Liles buy-out because the team had space a while ago to give Liles another shot at a third-pairing role with a good, right-shooting defensive upgrade, but the only way the big man can redeem himself in this situation is if he’s able to unload Liles’ toxic contract instead of Franson’s.

Further reading:

Save Cody Franson (Pension Plan Puppets)

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  • Jeremy Ian

    Great, fair, assessment. I am not sure you are on balance saying Franson is “over-rated” but that people may be over-reacting, and the alarm overlooks some of the data.

    Pressure’s on the handling of Liles’ contract.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Great read Cam.

    If the Leafs trade Franson now and lose Phaneuf to UFA this summer that will be tough to come back from.

    Need to keep one of those two and I’d rather have Franson at 3.5-4 than Phaneuf at 7+.

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been more talk of a Phaneuf deal. I know it’s not ideal.. but is that not the more prudent move here with the strong possibility of losing him for nothing this summer?

    Maybe I’m missing something here….

  • jasken

    Great article Cam

    This is by no means hard decision Franson is worth a 2nd rd pick in trading, therefore worth he should receive is 2.5 mil/yr on 1-2 yr contract.

    Here’s how it’s playing out Leafs offer Franson 2-2.5 mil he refuses, Leafs wait any team offers Franson equal to a 2nd rd they match, the offer more Leafs get a 1st and 3rd for him.

    How long will Franson hold out and not give in, the longer he is not playing more money he loses. His choice sign the contract and earn the big role he wants, or sits and maybe they trade his rights somewhere down road to who knows where for a 2nd.

    Potential is exactly that it carries no money value, performance and consistency do. GMs look at it the same way since there is lack of it his value is low. Leafs wont get a 1st and 3rd for him so he is going no where, unless there is a gambling GM out there on 64 mil cap.