The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing some tough decisions. Even though they bought out Mikhail Grabovski and let Clarke MacArthur walk this summer, the new deals handed out to David Clarkson ($5.25M) and Tyler Bozak ($4.2M), Paul Ranger ($1.0M) and Jonather Bernier ($2.9M) in concert with a dropping cap has them in a budgetary bind. That could mean an opportunity for the Flames to grab a relatively big, young, offensively capable defender in Cody Franson.
The Leafs have about $6M in cap space remaining, but need to re-sign Mark Fraser, Nazem Kadri and the aforementioned Franson. Fraser has filed for arbitration, requesting $2M/year (with the team coming in at about $880k), meaning Toronoto cannot walk away from whatever the arbitrator awards. Even if that battle goes the Leafs way and Fraser wins less than a million, that still only leaves just over $5M in space to ink Kadri and Franson, both of whom figure to be fairly expensive. Kadri is Toronto’s best forward under the age of 23 and he rode some nice percentages to a near point-per-game pace last year. He’s going to get paid.
That probably leaves Franson on the outside looking in. Rumors are the Leafs are shopping the 25 year old defender already. A towering 6’5", 213 pound rear guard, Franson is a former 3rd round pick of the Nashville Predators who had back-to-back 50+ point seasons in the WHL before turning pro. He’s already played 254 games at the NHL level, although he has yet to break the 30-point barrier in the show (he was on pace to score over 50 last year however).
Why The Flames Should Do it
Franson brings a lot of things the Flames currently lack on the back-end. He’s a pro, but also young, big, and has a booming shot and offensive upside. He has also had decent possession rates relative to his teammates in Toronto, finishing second and first in that category respectively in each of the last two seasons. He was also top-2 on the Leafs blueline in terms of even strength points scoring efficiency in those same two seasons. On top of all that, Franson’s four goals and 29 points last season were good for the 8th best points total in the entire league amongst defensemen.
Given all that, Franson seems to be poised to take a real step forward and establish himself as a legit top-4 defender who can quarterback a powerplay. A useful piece for an organization who has next to no legitimate offensive defenders in the pipeline after TJ Brodie (with apologies to Ryan Culkin, Eric Roy and Brett Kulak).
Why the Flames Shouldn’t Do it
Aside from the fact that trades between Toronto and Calgary never seem to bank in the Flames favor, the truth is the Leafs will be looking for what the Calgary organization is currently trying to hoard – namely, futures. Toronto will be trying to shed salary in any Franson deal, so they won’t be too interested in taking much back in terms of dollars, meaning kids and draft picks is the currency of the day.
In addition, although the Leafs are in a bit of bind which weakens their negotiating leverage somewhat, there’s no doubt a player like Franson will attract attention from more than a few suitors, potentially driving the asking price up. Futures are by definition undercertain, but they are also the bedrock (hopefuly) upon which Feaster et al. are rebuilding the team. The Flames should no doubt be willing to give up a piece or two to acquire Franson, but if the asking price veers into high-end prospect territory (first rounders, Gaudreau, Baertschi, Poirier, Klimchuk, etc.) it may not be a feasible swap.
In addition, there are some issues surrounding Franson’s results thus far. Of particular concern is the fact that he has more or less operated as a third pairing defender through the entiret of his NHL career. Last year, Franson was 7th in terms of average ES ice time on the Toronto blueline (15:03/game). The year before that, he was 7th again, this time averaging less than 15 minutes at 5on5 per game (14:36). His quality of competition metrics have been similarly soft since he entered the league.
So while Franson is big and can score at a decent rate, he has yet to be consistently tested against good players at even strength. The risk, therefore, is that Franson can’t move up the rotation effectively and more or less becomes another Anton Babchuk on the back-end.
As always, what a Franson trade ultimately comes down to is the asking price. Despite some concerns, the player strikes me as a worthwhile gamble for the Flames if he can be had for a package involving a marginal roster player (say Kris Russel or Derek Smith), a marginal prospect (Chris Breen, Greg Nemisz, any of the blueline prospects outside of Wotherspoon) and/or a middle-tier draft pick (2nd or lower). Otherwise it doesn’t make too much sense for the club.