If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to upgrade the right side of their defensive depth chart, there aren’t many options available to them in free agency. The good news is that one of those few options, Cody Franson, obviously has a warm place in his heart for the club.
Franson told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston in April that he was open to a return, describing playing in Toronto as “a dream come true” and pointing out that he’d said similar things in many past interviews. If the Leafs were to make him a priority target this summer, one would have to think that they would have a good shot at landing him. The bigger question is whether he’s a good fit.
It’s certainly something we may assume is on the team’s radar. A month before Johnston’s piece, Elliotte Friedman wrote that Toronto had been linked to Franson at the trade deadline, which would suggest the club has at least some measure of interest.
Obviously they didn’t land Franson then, but it’s hard to read too much into that. The Sabres ended up keeping both Franson and fellow UFA Dmitry Kulikov at the deadline (then-Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray said he was “surprised”) when their interest would have been best-served by trading those players. The market for rentals can vary widely from year to year, and in trying to land the best possible return it would seem that Buffalo just ended up missing an opportunity to recoup some assets.
What we can do is make our own assessment of Franson’s utility and his fit with the Leafs.
Toronto finished the year with four right-shot defenders. Rookie Nikita Zaitsev averaged just over 22 minutes per game in all situations and is a restricted free agent this summer. Roman Polak came in just under 18 minutes at evens and on the penalty kill. Connor Carrick and Alexey Marchenko didn’t get much special teams use and played third-pair minutes at evens.
Zaitsev is a restricted free agent and seems likely to return. Carrick and Marchenko are both under contract for next year, though there’s some expansion draft risk with Marchenko (assuming that Carrick is protected). Polak is an unrestricted free agent and a little harder to gauge because although he and Carrick are wildly different players both are obvious fits in a third-pairing role, with the distinction that Carrick is much younger and probably much cheaper.
The slot for Franson at evens is in a top-four role, along with Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. He’d also be available for minutes on the power play and penalty kill, as he’s played in both situations previously.
Toronto’s power play, which was the NHL’s second-best by goals-per-minute, doesn’t need much help; Franson would be more luxury than need there. Nevertheless, over the last four seasons he’s one of the league’s better power play point producers, averaging more than four points per hour in 5-on-4 situations. That compares nicely to players like Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and puts Franson ahead of Maple Leafs defender Jake Gardiner over the same span.
It’s a similar situation on the penalty kill. The Leafs were a top-10 team by goals against-per-minute last season and should be reasonably satisfied with their work in that department. I’m not satisfied that we really have a good all-purpose statistic for players on the penalty kill, but what we do have makes Franson look pretty average for an NHL defenceman. He’s in the middle tier of blue liners in terms of Corsi against and goals against relative to his teammates.
The biggest questions come at even-strength. A player with Franson’s size and reach should be competent on the penalty kill. A player with his shot, handedness and offensive instincts should be more than competent on the power play.
At even-strength, though, is where the weaknesses often cited in his game come to the fore. Even-strength play puts an emphasis on skating, and Franson’s only passable in that regard. There’s also generally a desire to see some snarl from a 6’5”, 234-pound defenceman, and that has never been Franson’s game.
It’s probably not worth overstating those warts, which have to be balanced against his good points: skill with the puck, size, reach and intelligence. His teams generally take more shots for and allow fewer against when he’s on the ice. They also, as a rule, have better goal differential when he’s out there, and this despite the fact that he’s generally been deployed more like a defensive than offensive specialist.
Franson is far from a perfect player, but he’s useful in a variety of situations and does more well than poorly. He turns 30 this summer, and should be a reasonably low-risk signing on even a two- or three-year deal. He’s not a perfect fit, but if Toronto can’t find that perfect fit he’s the best stopgap they’re likely to get.