The Buffalo Sabres continue to pursue free agent defenseman Cody Franson. Would signing him make them competitive enough to compete in the Atlantic Division?
Cody Franson sure seemed destined to cash in a-la Scrooge McDuck this summer, diving into a pit of money. With each passing day, his situation increasingly resembles that of the exact opposite: a down-on-his-luck beggar.
OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Franson isn’t wandering the streets asking for a team to sign him. He is, however, running painfully low on suitors. He’s expressed how sick he is of one-year deals and, as a right-shot defenseman, he should command a hefty price tag. But there just aren’t many teams with the wiggle room for a multi-year deal at what should more than double, if not triple, the cap hit of Christian Ehrhoff’s new pact with L.A.
The Kings would’ve been a nice fit for Franson as long as suspended Slava Voynov’s cap hit remained off the books, but they opted for the far cheaper Ehrhoff. The Boston Bruins sure seem like a fit but, with $4.76 million in cap space, would press themselves up against the cap or over it with a Franson contract.
That voice you hear in the distance? “What about us? Excuse me! EXCUSE ME?” It’s that of deep-pocketed Terry Pegula and his Buffalo Sabres. They have more than $12 million to play with, and Pegula loves flexing his financial muscle. The Sabres also happen to have a weak defense corps. It’s no wonder, then, The Buffalo News cites two sources stating the Sabres have offered Franson a two-year contract.
The fit makes a ton of sense for the Sabres, who sent Nikita Zadorov to Colorado in the Ryan O’Reilly trade and could really use a veteran blueliner. Better yet, Franson is still in his 20s and can really help a power play with his puck-moving abilities. These types of free agents don’t grow on trees.
The hangup, presumably, is that Franson may not want to play for another cellar-dwelling franchise. Buffalo was the NHL’s laughing stock last season and has been for several. Yeah…about that. What if the Sabres can compete in the Eastern Conference this year after a highly productive off-season? And what if Franson’s presence really turns them into something competitive?
General manager Tim Murray worked hard this summer and, on paper, his 2015-16 roster is much better than the pitiful 2014-15 version of the Sabres. Even if Zadorov (whom I’m high on) and Mikhail Grigorenko blossom in Colorado, it’s safe to say they were too green to contribute significantly last season. So in removing them, backup goalie Anders Lindback, Andre Benoit and the struggling Cody Hodgson, you haven’t removed any of Buffalo’s most useful pieces specifically from last season’s 23-51-8 squad.
Murray, though, has added No. 1 and No. 2 centers in Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel, the latter of whom is arguably the second-best NHL prospect since John Tavares in 2009. Evander Kane, acquired last season, hasn’t played a game with Buffalo yet and also bolsters the top line when healthy. That’s half the top six forwards overhauled. David Legwand and Jamie McGinn give some veteran depth to the bottom six. Robin Lehner, arriving from an Ottawa trade, gets his shot to be a bona fide No. 1 goalie. He’s fallen out of favor the past season or two but was an elite netminding prospect before that and is just 24. Murray drafted him when Murray was still the Senators’ assistant GM. He sees something in Lehner, and there’s really nowhere to go but up in the Buffalo crease.
Buffalo’s blueline leaves plenty to be desired, sure. Zach Bogosian can be a good minutes eater and more if healthy, which isn’t often, and Rasmus Ristolainen is a future star. After those two, it’s a dicey mix of plodding, savvy vets (Josh Gorges, Mike Weber), youngsters not quite ready for full-time duty (Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe) and depth signings (Carlo Colaiacovo, Matt Donovan). That’s where Franson comes in. If Murray can get a deal done, the Sabres suddenly deploy some combination of Bogosian, Franson, Ristolainen and Gorges as their top four. That ain’t half-bad.
Factor in the mental boost of a new coach in Dan Byslma and Buffalo looks like, say, an 80-point team. Add in Franson and it’s fair to wonder if the Sabres can flirt with 85. Also in Buffalo’s favor: it plays in the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division. The Leafs are a pushover. The Habs have trouble scoring and depend too much on their goaltending. The Senators, as inspiring as they were last season, needed a miracle run to make the playoffs on the season’s final day. The Bruins are in transition after missing the big dance, and the young Florida Panthers aren’t guaranteed to be ready for prime time. Don’t twist my words – I’m not saying the Sabres are better than any of these teams, as they aren’t – but there is weakness to exploit in the Atlantic. And Franson would better position the Sabres to do that.
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