At the moment the Toronto Maple Leafs are pretty thin on right-shooting defencemen. Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick are the only two right-shot D in the organization who seem likely to make the opening night roster at the moment. The team could simply run a roster that’s heavy on left-shots, perhaps with a bottom pairing of Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick, but Mike Babcock has tended to prefer an even left/right split, and there’s some evidence that playing defencemen on their off-side tends to hurt their results.
With Roman Polak seemingly on the way out and no plausible internal candidates, the Leafs options are either to make a trade (as they apparently tried to do with Travis Hamonic this weekend) or sign a free agent. The free agent pool on defence is unimpressive this summer. The top option is clearly Kevin Shattenkirk. I think it would be smart for the Leafs to take a run at him, but if they don’t want to or he isn’t interested, there aren’t a lot of other options. Names like Dan Girardi and Michael Stone don’t inspire a lot of confidence. There is one player out there that I’d like to see the Leafs bring in, and that’s Cody Franson.
Franson has made it clear that he’d welcome a return to the Leafs. Asked in April whether he’d consider playing for Toronto again, he told reporters, “Oh yeah, for sure.” Franson described playing for the Leafs as “a dream come true for me” and said “Everything about Toronto for us was a great experience.” So we know that Cody would consider signing with the Leafs again, but should the Leafs want to bring him back? I think they should, so allow me to explain why.
The main thing Cody Franson is known for is his high-scoring seasons in Toronto, especially his production on the powerplay. Let’s take a look at how his scoring rate has evolved at 5v5 over the past six seasons, starting with his first playing for the Leafs:
Franson’s scoring has certainly slowed down at even strength, which shouldn’t be surprising given that he turns 30 this summer. Interestingly, there hasn’t been much of a change in his goal-scoring rate; it’s mostly his primary assist rate that’s fallen. Some of this can perhaps be explained by the fact that he’s spent the past two years on a very low-scoring Buffalo Sabres team that has finished 26th in goal scoring both years. The Leafs teams he played for were typically higher-scoring. So it is possible some of the drop-offs in production for Franson is simply due to moving to a lower-scoring team. However, based on his age we should probably expect that he isn’t going to score like he did during his last couple of years in Toronto.
Cody Franson is perhaps best known for his skill on the powerplay. Let’s see how his 5v4 scoring has evolved:
While Franson had a huge dip in his assist rate last year for whatever reason, his powerplay scoring has generally held up pretty well as he’s gotten older. We know that forwards maintain scoring ability on the powerplay at a much later age than even strength scoring, and it makes sense that defencemen would too. So it’s fair to expect that Franson could likely continue to contribute on the powerplay for at least another couple of seasons. The Leafs don’t really need powerplay scoring, with Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Nikita Zaitsev already in the lineup, but if injuries strike at some point, it’s nice to know that there are other options available.
One of the most valuable elements of Franson’s game has been his ability to drive puck possession as measured through shot differentials. A big part of why statistically-oriented writers tend to like Franson is that he’s been a consistently strong Corsi player for pretty much his entire career. And as you can see in the following table, it’s something he’s continued to be quite good at even as he’s moved past what are normally the peak years for NHL players (roughly the mid-20s):
|Season||CF/60 Rel||CA/60 Rel||CF% Rel|
CF/60 (Corsi For per 60 minutes) is shot attempts for a player’s team, and a positive result means the team gets more shot attempts when the player is on the ice than when he’s on the bench. CA/60 (Corsi Against) is shot attempts against that player’s team, and a negative number means that a player’s team allows fewer shots against their own goalie when a player is on the ice, which is good. A positive CF% Rel means that a player’s team gets a better ratio of shot attempts when that player is on the ice. If a player had a Corsi of 52% and the team was at 50% with him on the bench, that would be a +2.0% Corsi Rel.
As you can see, Cody Franson has consistently been a positive driver of shot attempts for his own team and has reduced shot attempts against his own goalie. Put in more plain English, Franson creates offence and is good defensively. A Corsi Rel of +2% or more is typically good enough to be in the top 50 among regular defencemen in the entire NHL. Cody Franson’s results aren’t quite at the same level as someone like Jake Gardiner (who typically has a Corsi Rel closer to 4-5%), but they’re still very good. It may be a stretch to say that Franson is a top pair defenceman, given that he typically plays easier minutes than the league’s best defenders, but his results have consistently been very good, even for a player with slightly easier deployment.
NEUTRAL ZONE PLAY
It’s good for a defenceman to have a good shot differential, but that leads to an obvious question: what exactly is a player doing that leads to his team controlling shots when he’s on the ice? Is he doing particular things that help his team or is he benefitting from playing with better linemates? One of the ways to get a better handle on these questions is to look at a player’s neutral zone play, the things he does to get the puck into and out of the neutral zone.
First let’s look at what I would consider “offensive” neutral zone play, which is transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone (zone exits) and getting the puck into the offensive zone (zone entries). These numbers are for Sabres defencemen in games last season tracked by Corey Sznajder.
|Player||Controlled Entry %||Controlled Exit %|
A controlled entry is an entry into the offensive zone where a team maintains possession of the puck (ie. not a dump-in or turnover), while a controlled exit is the same idea but for pucks leaving the defensive zone.
Cody Franson has an OK rate of controlled entries, 3rd on the Sabres. His controlled exit % isn’t great, as he frequently dumped the puck into the neutral zone instead of making a clean pass or skating the puck out. There is a weakness in Franson’s game there, but it is largely mitigated by his strengths elsewhere.
Now let’s see how Franson did in terms of defending his own blue line:
|Player||Carry-in %||Break-up %|
This is an area where Cody Franson really stands out, as he was consistently one of the better Sabres at preventing other teams from entering the Sabres’ zone. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising given Franson’s large frame and big reach, but it’s still worth noting.
Cody Franson’s Corsi numbers likely overstate his value a bit. His scoring rate, especially at even strength, seems to be in decline, and his difficulties trying to cleanly transition out of the defensive zone are an issue. But on the whole, he still provides pretty strong positive impacts when he’s on the ice. He has consistently driven shot differential at a pretty high rate for his entire career, and he’s still got some value producing offence on the powerplay.
It’s also worth adding that the Leafs likely wouldn’t be looking to sign Franson to play a top 4 role. What they really need is someone to take the minutes Roman Polak played last year and provide a bit of depth at a position of organizational weakness (right-shooting defencemen). If the Leafs don’t swing a trade for a top 4 defenceman and they can’t land Kevin Shattenkirk, Cody Franson would be a very solid addition to the blueline.