TORONTO – Cody Franson, a one-year contract in his pocket, returned to the Toronto fold Thursday to the sound of his Maple Leaf teammates thumping the ice with their sticks as a welcome.
The six-foot-five defenceman was late joining practice after undergoing a medical but his teammates made sure his return was noted. It seemed a combination “Good to have you back” and “What took you so long?”
“He’s a big part of this team,” said defence partner Mark Fraser. “He has been for a while.
“Everyone, I think, was supporting him in his decision. It’s always tough when the business side comes into play like that but we’re definitely all very happy to have him back. I certainly am.”
Franson, 26, had four goals and 25 assists during a career year in 2013. He got more playing time in the playoffs when Fraser went down, while providing an offensive boost with his hard shot from the point. With three goals and three assists in seven games, he tied for second in team playoff scoring.
Coach Randy Carlyle said Franson had grown as a player last season, buying into the team’s direction. Carlyle said Franson committed to a more physical game, which gave him more space, and became the team’s best option playing the right point.
Franson did not file for off-season salary arbitration, saying his case “wasn’t as strong as most people assume,” and instead looked to negotiate directly with the Leafs. When the two sides couldn’t get close on a two-year deal, they compromised on numbers with a one-year US$2-million deal.
While it was being negotiated, Franson worked out with the Ryerson Rams.
“I’m glad it’s done,” he said. “It’s a process nobody really wants to go through. Fortunately we were able to find a common ground and get it done before the regular season started.”
Toronto has now signed Nazem Kadri and Mason Raymond, as well as giving goalie Jonathan Bernier a new deal.
The Leafs front office, however, still has work to do to make the salary cap numbers work as it looks to fit an opening day roster under the $64.3-million salary cap. David Clarkson will miss the first 10 games of the season through suspension but the team will continue to bear his cap hit.
“It’s still the same situation as if Cody had signed at the beginning of camp,” said Toronto assistant GM Claude Loiselle. “We’re still evaluating. We still have two (exhibition) games left. And we’ll see how it shakes out.”
Loiselle called it a “tough process.”
“The cap has gone down $6 million across the board and it’s difficult.”
Toronto will “probably” go with less than a 23-man roster to start the season, he said. “But again we’re going to ice the best team possible and the coach makes those decisions.”
The Leafs have to dress at least 18 skaters and two goalies.
One option might include putting tough guy Frazer McLaren (hand injury) on the long-term injured reserve, which means he is unavailable for at least 24 days and 10 games. That buys the team some cap relief.
There are more problems down the line. Toronto could have eight unrestricted free agents next summer including captain Dion Phaneuf and star winger Phil Kessel. And there could be four restricted free agents including goalie James Reimer and defencemen Jake Gardiner and Franson.
Carlyle suggested the Franson signing was not a minute too soon, referring to the fact that it had become “decision time.”
“Either we were going forward with Cody Franson or we were not going to be going forward with him and it was going to be something that we were going to commit to for the rest of the year.”
Franson, whose salary was $1.2 million last season, was reunited with Fraser at practice.
The other defensive pairings were captain Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Paul Ranger, and John-Michael Liles and Morgan Rielly.
Liles, who will earn $3.875 million this season, and Rielly may suffer the most with Franson’s return. Carlyle said the Leafs will probably used the 10 games Rielly is allowed to play before deciding what to do with him.
Dave Bolland and Colton Orr are expected to return to action in the final exhibition games—Friday against Detroit and Saturday at home to the Red Wings.
Carlyle spoke to the team prior to practice, saying later there was a discussion on work ethic “and our lack of it in the exhibition games.”
There were some smiles when forward Jay McClement collided with Carlyle in mid-ice during a drill. Carlyle absorbed the impact and, with a smile of his own, made McClement do the next drill twice.
“He’s lucky I didn’t have any equipment on, I was going to give him an elbow,” Carlyle joked. “He almost ran me over pretty good.”