One of the interesting questions left by the Luke Schenn trade is “well, who fills his roster spot?” At least for now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have one fewer NHL defenceman than they did heading into the weekend.
The first question to ask is “what was Luke Schenn’s spot?” Schenn played a top-four role, but just barely. He beat out John-Michael Liles in total ice time this season, but just barely, and played 13 more games. In even strength ice time per game, Schenn was sixth on the Leafs, even behind Mike Komisarek, who was leaned upon for slightly tougher minutes in the games he did play.
Schenn played primarily with Jake Gardiner, and their minutes were fairly easy. They regularly faced weak competition and started primarily in the offensive zone, aided by the heavy lifting done by the excellent Dion Phaneuf-Carl Gunnarsson top pairing.
Essentially, Schenn acted as a sixth defenceman, but his role gained more prominence this season because of Liles’ concussion. Even on a team that was limited in quality defencemen, Schenn’s role was shockingly limited.
Is there a player behind him in the depth chart who can take his spot? Certainly not Jay Rosehill, who is listed as a defenceman on Behind the Net for entirely inexplicable reasons. It’s almost as baffling as Rosehill’s Wikipedia page listing him as an “ice hockey” player.
That said, Cody Franson is the only actual defenceman who played behind Schenn in both total minutes and minutes per game at even strength. He is a restricted free agent and will probably be re-signed for cheap.
So, is Cody Franson a player who can be a low-pairing defenceman in the NHL? Well, yes, because he has been for three seasons already. In 2011 in Nashville, Franson played 80 games, and he had 61 more in the 2010 season.
What kind of player was he? Well, with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter around to eat up the minutes, tough ones, even, Franson didn’t have to do all that much.
In 2010 his Corsi Rel QoC, our best measure for the quality of competition that he faced, was -1.047 in just under 12 minutes at 5-on-5 on average. In 2011, it was he played a little under 13 minutes with a -.673 Corsi Rel QoC. See a pattern?
Franson isn’t exactly a hard minutes guy, nor does he play a lot of them, but he satisfies the requirement for depth guys in the NHL. You want your players on the fourth line and in the third pairing on D to not get killed in possession. It’s unrealistic to expect world beaters and stars everywhere in the lineup, but Franson has played each and ever season and playoffs with a positive Corsi number, meaning that he is winning the possession battles.
Thus far, there isn’t evidence to suggest that Franson can be a top four player in the NHL. His minutes throughout his career have been on the easy side, so to pencil him in for anything outside of a bottom pairing role would be a chaotic experience. Maybe you move him up for a few games if a guy gets hurt and there’s no immediate replacement.
The good news is that Schenn doesn’t appear to have left very big shoes to fill. He played quite poorly last season, and the coaching staff knew it. With a -.154 Corsi Rel QoC last season, generally easy minutes, he got killed, boasting the worst Relative Corsi on the team.
The more you look at this, the easier it looks to replace Schenn in the lineup. The issue now is that Jake Gardiner, whose possession numbers were much, much better than Schenn’s last season, is probably up for an increase in workload, and there’s nobody on the roster to go forward with him anymore.
Franson isn’t that guy, although he can play on the right side and has the tools to be an effective powerplay man, I don’t think he’s level or his player-type complements what Gardiner brings to the table.
Gardiner on one pairing with either Mike Komisarek or John-Michael Liles and Franson on the other with either Mike Komisarek or John-Michael Liles isn’t an appealing enough bottom four. In all likelihood, the best option doesn’t come from within. Our friend Danny has outlined a few possibilities of unrestricted free agents to sign, and we certainly can’t forget that Mr. Justin Schultz is available to talk to teams on this beautiful, beautiful Monday.