Cody Franson hopes Toronto offers him a free agent contract this summer. The question is, though: would Toronto be smart to bring him back?
Cody Franson’s life changed when the Toronto Maple Leafs dealt him to the Nashville Predators Feb. 15, a couple weeks before the 2014-15 trade deadline. Who knew so much more would change in less than three months after that?
Franson’s new (old) team, the Nashville Predators, flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, abruptly ending his hopes of a deep Stanley Cup push as a post-season rental. Worse yet, Franson was a terrible fit in Music City. He was a right-handed shooter buried on the depth chart among talented righty blueliners Shea Weber and Seth Jones. Franson played more than 21 minutes a game as a Leaf and slipped to around 15 as a Pred, with a drastically reduced special teams role, which was disastrous for a guy who thrived as a power play contributor. Nashville GM David Poile admitted after the season the Franson deal wasn’t a good fit in hindsight. The Preds also landed center Mike Santorelli from Toronto but surrendered a first-round pick and Brendan Leipsic in the process.
So Franson felt the anguish of a quick playoff exit, and his value as an unrestricted free agent may have diminished in the process. He was all but a lock for one of the top two or three paydays of the summer as a right-shot blueliner who can contribute 40-plus points and will be just 28 when next season begins. He’ll still be among the most coveted names in a vanilla free agent class, but he may have shaved $1 million off his average annual value in the last couple months. Think $5-million cap hit, not $6-million.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, the Leafs just bagged the summer’s top free agent: coach Mike Babcock. The grass up there looks emerald-green. Is it any wonder, after all that’s transpired, that Franson hopes to play for the Leafs again next season?
In fairness, Franson said immediately after being traded he would absolutely consider returning to the Leafs. But the allure now is even stronger. Franson told TSN radio over the weekend, “Definitely, with Mr. Babcock going there, it’s an exciting time for people in that organization, and I think it makes it more intriguing to free agents for sure.”
He added he’s always loved Toronto and that he was “hopeful Toronto’s in the mix come July 1, and my phone will definitely be on and hoping they’re one of the teams that calls.”
The question is, though: should Toronto be one of the teams that calls? Does the move make sense for the Leafs?
It’s logical enough from a pure hockey, depth-chart perspective. The Leafs’ best puck-moving blueliners are left-handed shooters Dion Phaneuf, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. They get grit on the back end from right-handed Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas, but they have an open spot in their top six for a mobile righty. The yet-to-be-named Leafs GM may also explore trading Polak, who has just a year left on his contract, not to mention Phaneuf, forever the subject of rumors. Franson is right in the middle of his prime, he’s played his best hockey as a Leaf and he’s young enough to build around. The Leafs are in pretty decent shape financially, as a projected $71-million cap would give them more than $17 million in space, with only restricted free agents Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier commanding large chunks of money.
Still, the red flags outnumber the green ones. Slotting Franson back into the existing top six reunites a group that struggled horribly in 2014-15. Do you really want to relive that? Bringing in Babbock is a double-edged sword. It will attract more free agents, including players like Franson who want to return to the nest. But you saw the message in the post-signing presser. There is pain to come. The Babcock Leafs aren’t interested in merely making the playoffs. Brendan Shanahan is on board with a true, marathon rebuild. Wouldn’t throwing money at a big UFA like Franson go against that mantra? Even a Franson with slightly diminished value will still earn one of the summer’s biggest contracts. Just 38.6 percent of active NHL blueliners shoot right-handed, creating a low supply and high demand. Of the league’s defensemen making $6 million or more per season, 63.6 percent shoot right-handed. Seventeen percent of right-shot D-men make $5 million or more, versus 11.6 percent of left-shots. All the trends suggest Franson will command a pretty penny. He’d have to accept a discount to make himself appealing to the Leafs, and it’s hard to imagine him doing that. As much as he might want to return, this UFA contract should be the longest and richest of his career.
It’s understandable why Franson has interest in returning to Toronto. Don’t count on it happening, though. The two sides aren’t the match they appear to be.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin