Monday, November 10, 2014

What to do with Cody Franson

From the press box to the top defensive pairing, Cody Franson has come a long way in his four seasons as a Maple Leaf. Now in the final year of his contract the Leafs have to decide whether he's a key piece for their future or whether he's expendable.

For a while it looked like Franson was merely a bottom-pairing defenceman with a good shot capable of racking up points on the power play. Now Franson has become the Leafs best possession defenceman while playing alongside Dion Phaneuf on the top pair. When Franson takes the ice the Leafs gain a shot advantage they haven't enjoyed in years; the team controls 50.1% of all shot attempts with Franson, and fall back to their customary shelled selves when he takes a breather.

As always with these early statistics, a small sample size caveat applies, but the role Randy Carlyle is using Franson in isn't artificially inflating his numbers.

Although Franson and Phaneuf aren't getting the extreme defensive minutes that the captain has been accustomed to in the past (the heavy defensive zone starts are falling on Roman Polak), they are facing the opposition's best players more often than not. Against the Rangers on Saturday, for example, the duo played 65% of their even-strength minutes against Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash. 

In addition, Franson hasn't lost a step offensively with the harder competition. He has 8 points in 13 games and another 30-point season seems like a low bar. Although he doesn't score at the rate of P.K. Subban or Erik Karlsson, the game's elite point-producers from the backend, Franson has 70 points dating back to 2012 when he established himself as a full-time player, good enough for 20th among defencemen.

Now a year before becoming an unrestricted free agent, Franson picked a great time to establish himself as a legitimate top-4 defenceman, both from an offensive and defensive perspective. Until this point the Leafs have shown no interest in locking him up long term, preferring instead to keep him on short one-year deals. If they are convinced now he is a part of their future it might be too late.

Last off-season Matt Niskanen parlayed one strong offensive season into a seven-year contract worth $40.25 million. Although Niskanen has shown an ability to positively influence his team's shot-differential over his career (52.7% when he's on the ice), the Capitals also doled out a huge deal to the rapidly declining Brooks Orpik, so I'm not so certain they paid too much attention to those stats. Simply put, guys who can play top-4 minutes on the backend and put up points are incredibly valuable on the open market.

Franson will be one of the youngest defencemen to hit the market this summer, although there is enough potential competition (Marc Staal, Francois Beauchemin, Johnny Boychuk, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Mike Green), that a major Niskanen-type pay day may not be in the cards. But based on his performance so far this season and his consistent ability to produce, there is enough evidence to suggest that someone will give him at least what the Leafs gave Jake Gardiner (5 years, $20.25 million).

With plenty of long-term, pricey contracts already on the books, plus the need to re-sign Nazem Kadri this summer and Morgan Rielly the summer after, there realistically isn't the money available to keep Franson, unless the Leafs can somehow dump David Clarkson on some sucker.

The dilemma then becomes do the Leafs keep Franson all season considering the primary role he has with the team, knowing he's unlikely to stay once he hits July 1, or do they try to deal him at the deadline or before to pick up some badly needed assets.

The Leafs went through the same dilemma with John-Michael Liles a few seasons ago, and look how badly that turned out. Teams perennially outside the playoffs can't afford to make the same mistakes twice.

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