Does Cody Franson Have a Future With The Toronto Maple Leafs?

March 14th, 2014 2 Comments

1aleafsAt 6’5” and 213 pounds, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson ( who may never grow a playoff beard )has the size to be an intimidating NHL defenseman. Blessed with a heavy shot, Franson has the ability to run the power play and has reasonable puck moving skills.

With Franson bringing size, puck moving skills and a heavy shot, there would seem to be room for him on the Maple Leafs’ blueline. That said, Franson’s sluggish skating, inconsistent defensive coverage and penchant for not using his size to his full advantage, may be enough for the Maple Leafs to overlook the pending RFA this summer.

Through 65 games with the Maple Leafs, Franson has accumulated a total of four goals (one power play marker) and 28 points. Offensively, Franson is better than the average NHL defenseman, but hardly a game changer on a nightly basis.

Franson’s alarming minus-14 rating ranks him 798th overall. His inability to control opposing players down low, combined with his sub-par skating make him suspect on the backend, which is where the Maple Leafs need the most help.

At 26 years old, Franson would seem to just be coming into his own as an NHL defenseman. And, at a price tag of $2 million, most teams would consider Franson a bargain. Of course, as good as Franson is offensively, he brings a slew of shortcomings to the table. So, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

With the emergence of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, it would appear as if Franson’s contributions to the Maple Leafs will decline in the foreseeable future.

Rielly is likely to be given every chance to emerge as a top-tier defenseman, while Gardiner (if retained) will be looked upon to run the Maple Leafs’ power play, sooner rather than later.

Boasting a top-six of Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Tim Gleason, Rielly, Gardiner, and Franson, the Maple Leafs have faired poorly defensively this season. To be clear, the Maple Leafs give up more shots per game (36.4) than any other NHL team. The Leafs also own the 28th ranked penalty kill and give up 2.98 goals per game, ranking them 26th overall.

While the defense cannot be blamed for all of the Maple Leafs defensive woes, they do own the lions share.

Going forward, the Maple Leafs seem married to Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Rielly. Gleason, Gardiner and Franson all have a measure of upside, but none of them are a lock to be in a Maple Leaf uniform next season.

With Franson set to become a restricted free agent this summer, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis will have a tough decision to make when it comes to Franson’s future.

Sure, Nonis could re-sign Franson, but in doing so, he would only be asking for trouble. Simply put, Franson cannot play the style of game that head coach Randy Carlyle demands his defensemen to play. Carlyle needs Franson to be more physical, elevate his defensive play and continue to be a contributor on the power play. Does anyone out there really believe Franson will evolve into a complete package?

franson1Rumors suggest Franson will be looking for a 3-5 year deal in the $3.0-$4.0  million per year range. While $3-$4 million is a reasonable amount for a top-four defenseman in today’s NHL, there is reason to believe that Franson will be passed by the likes of Gardiner and Rielly next season, reducing Franson to a bottom pair defenseman.

Simply put, $4 million a season is too much for a fifth or sixth defenseman, which should see Franson priced out of Toronto’s future plans.

Should Nonis decide to take a pass on Franson, there are free agent options available.

At 6’2” and 207 pounds, Kyle Quincey brings decent size to the rink. His smooth skating and ability to move the puck are well documented in scouting reports as is his ability to play the penalty kill. He also has the ability to log big minutes, averaging 20:35 per game with the Detroit Red Wings this season.

Like Franson, Quincey (28) has his fair share of shortcomings. Quincey is inconsistent, does not have the offensive flare (Quincey has ten points in 65 games with Detroit this season) that Franson brings to the table and is considered a bit of a pushover in his own zone.

With a cap hit of $3,775,000, Quincey will not come cheap. A four or five-year/$20-$25 million contract would not be out of the question, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see him sign a three year deal.

Another option for Nonis would be pending UFA defenseman Matt Niskanen.

Playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, Niskanen (27) has put together an excellent campaign, registering nine goals (three power play markers), 38 points and a plus-32 rating through 65 games.

Known as an excellent skater with a great point shot, Niskanen can play in all situations. That said, like many young defenseman, Niskanen struggles in his own zone at times and has had his hockey IQ questioned on occasion.

Averaging 20:56 per game in ice time, Niskanen averages 0:46 of penalty killing and 2:35 of power play time. Ideally, Niskanen would evolve his defensive play and develop his penalty killing, but it is hard to find everything in one defenseman.

Simply put, the signing of Niskanen could replace any lost offense from losing Franson and possibly free up Gardiner whom Nonis could use as trade bait to bring in that stay-at-home defenseman the Maple Leafs so badly need.

Blessed with poise and good anticipation in the defensive zone, Columbus Blue Jackets’ defenseman Nikita Nikitin brings a nice combination of size (6’3”, 217 pounds) and skill to the table.

Nikitin’s ability to move the puck and skating are well documented, as is his all-round hockey IQ, which is good.

At 27-years old, Nikitin is still developing his game. He would be a great fit on the Maple Leafs roster as a solid number 4-6 defenseman, capable of emerging as a decent offensive defenseman with two-way play capabilities.

When you consider the Maple Leafs biggest need, it is that of a shutdown defenseman. No unrestricted free agent answers that criteria better than Pittsburgh Penguins veteran, Brooks Orpik.

Known as a steady NHL defenseman who serves up punishing hits and plays a simple defensive game, Orpik has the unique combination of skill, leadership and veteran presence that the Maple Leafs so desperately need.

Averaging 21:17 minutes of ice time, Orpik is the backbone of the Penguins’ top-ranked penalty kill, averaging 2:52 of short handed time per game. Orpik also contributes considerable time on the Pens top-ranked power play (3:48 per game) although he does not posses the offensive flare (one goal, 12 points through 57 games played) that some of the Maple Leafs’ options do.

As much as Quincey, Niskanen and Nikitin might be the sexier free agent signings, Brooks Orpik is the defenseman that the Maple Leafs should be going after this summer.

Let’s face it, wooing Orpik from Pittsburgh would not be easy, but if the Maple Leafs are serious about winning a Stanley Cup, they will need to add a player of Orpik’s ilk.

At the very least, if Franson is not re-signed, Nonis has options. Here’s hoping he does the right thing and brings Orpik to Toronto!

2 Comments

  1. Bill K. says:

    You must be kidding…Leafs contending…33-yr old d-man. I think Leafs should move Franson. Nikitin would be an improvement on the defence side/penalty kill. Get that back to at least mid pack and they’re in play-offs.

  2. MarkRitter says:

    Must be kidding? Nope…Orpik has been one of the most consistent D-men in the League for a while now. Over the past 8 seasons he has been a plus player every year but one (+4, +11, +10, +6, +12, +19, +17, -3). Orpik blocks shots, hits hard, plays the PP, plays great on the PK— what’s not to like? He is also a solid playoff contributor with 88 games experience and he has won a Cup…Orpik brings the exact skill-set that the Maple Leafs so desperately need. The Maple Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, they could sue some veteran leadership. Who cares if he is 33? As for the Leafs contending, they are still a few players away for sure. That said, I see them playoff bound next season and anything can happen in the playoffs. Either way, There will be big changes this summer, book it!

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