I have been an advocate of dealing Dennis Wideman and replacing him with Cody Franson for most of the off-season. With Franson lingering into August as an unrestricted free agent, my interest in the Flames swapping him in for Wideman has doubled, given the fact his initial contract demands have likely lessened over time. There’s a chance Franson goes relatively cheap to whoever signs him now, which is good news given the fact he was arguable the best UFA defender on the market this year.
I’ve learned that my Wideman strategy doesn’t hold universal appeal. A wade through comments sections or message boards shows a wave of support for the current Flames, as well as lot of skepticism about the value of Wideman. In this article, I’ll look at a side-by-side comparison of the two and discussion my reasoning for the hypothetical switch up.
Before we get to the compare and contrast stuff, let’s first establish that Wideman’s stock is unlikely to ever get higher than it is right now. Last year, Wideman set career highs across the board: goals (15), assists (41), points (56), shots on goal (173) and shooting percentage (8.7%). Only once before has he managed 50 points in a season, and that was back in 2008-09.
Those are great results and no doubt a big reason why most Flames fans would like to see Dennis Wideman back on the blueline. However, we should expect Dennis to take a step back for a variety of reasons:
1.) He’s at the age where performance typically starts to fall off for defenders (32)
2.) Though he has a great shot from the point, Wideman’s SH% will likely regress back towards his career average of 6.7%
3.) He got a huge boost in even strength and PP ice time thanks to the Giordano injury. With Hamilton in the fold and Gio healthy, it’s likely both will take a significant hit
4.) Wideman’s on-ice SH% (that is, the team’s shooting percentage when he was on the ice at even strength) was an incredible 10.43%. The league average is about 8% and most players see that number aggressively regress towards that average. Especially defensemen, as Travis Yost points shows here.
Taken together, everything points to Wideman being a bad bet to repeat his offensive performance from last year. Many people forget, as well, that his contract was considered something of an albatross before he experienced his renaissance in 2014-15. A step back or two and his $5.25M will start to look questionable again.
Franson vs Wideman: Offense
That said, none of the above is a reason to replace Wideman with Franson per se. It’s just the reason why the Flames should be aggressively shopping the former on the trade market.
Because offense is Wideman’s primary strength, it makes to compare the two by this criteria first.
First off, let’s establish that Wideman has the much better overall counting numbers over his career. Beyond the two 50+ point seasons, he has also scored 30+ points four times and 40+ points twice. That output seems to completely outclass Franson, whose career high in six seasons is 36 points.
The truth is a little more complicated though. Defenders point totals are heavily skewed by ice time and opportunity. If we look at each guy’s even strength rate of scoring, we find they are actually quite similar:
The highlighted column shows even strength points/60 rates for each guy over the last few seasons going back to 2011-12. As you can see, it’s a pretty even draw between Franson and Wideman over the last 4 seasons, with each guy hovering around the 1.00 ESP/60 mark, give or take.
What about the power play then? It turns out, three of Franson’s PP scoring rates over the last four seasons are better than Wideman’s best year in the same sample (6.21, 5.44 and 5.38 vs 5.20).
While Wideman’s offensive totals are definitely superior to Franson’s, it’s fair to say that has more to do with ice time and circumstance than pure ability. Franson and Wideman tend to score at similar rates at both even strength and on the PP.
Franson vs Wideman: Driving Play
Next, we’ll look at how each guy influences shot rates and effects his teammates. This is important because it gives us clues as to how each player helps drive defense and goal differential. First, relative possession rates over the last three years period via War on Ice:
The above shows each players relative possession rate for the last three seasons for each guy. On the bottom, you see offensive zone to defensive zone start ratio (the further right the bubble, the “easier” the zone start). The Y-axis is the player’s quality of competition measured by average ice time. The bubble colour represents relative possession: the deeper blue, the better. The darker red, the worse.
As you can see, Franson is unquestionably the better play by this metric, even though Wideman has had the easier assignment in two of the last three seasons. This has actually been Franson’s calling card since he broke into the NHL: he has consistently been on of the better possession defenders on whatever team he’s been on.
Wideman, on the other hand, has been a middling possession blueliner for most of his career, often making up for mediocre shot differentials with his scoring. The last few seasons as a Flame, though, has seen him descend into way below “worse than average” territory, especially since he and Kris Russell tend to get the lion’s share of offensive zone face-offs amongst Flames defensemen. That means, if he isn’t enjoying way above average shooting percentages, Wideman is a risk to start getting completely outscored at 5on5.
The difference in the two players in terms of driving play and influencing teammates can be further investigated via Own the Puck’s visualizations. Here is Wideman’s impact over the last three seasons:
As you can see, Wideman tends to improve his line mates shot rates (corsi for/60, or shot attempts at the opposing net), but their shots against rates tend to go in the toilet as well (corsi against/60, or shot attempts at his own net). Last year (the deeper blue dot above), he improved his line mates corsi for by about 2.5/60. The problem is, they also saw their corsi against jump by over 6.0/60 with him. Yikes.
This weakness is captured in his HERO chart:
Again, Wideman’s production is excellent and he drives offense like a first pairing guy. The problem is, he gets absolutely cratered (worst than your average 3rd pairing guy) on the other side of the puck. As a result, his overall CF% (corsi ratio) doesn’t even cross the top four threshold.
Here’s Cody Franson’s charts in comparison:
Much tidier. Franson doesn’t score goals as much as Wideman, but he manages assists at a greater rate and is much more proficient on the defensive end, being just south of first pairing rates by all possession measures (both for and against).
Just to bring this all home, here is how each guy rates in terms of relative scoring chance ratio (SCF%) over the last three years:
Franson: three straight years in the black. Wideman: three straight years in the red. Franson’s worst season (+0.43/60) is better than Wideman’s best (-0.85/60).
For the TL/DR crowd – Franson and Wideman score at similar rates and they tend to promote shots for rather well, but Wideman gets shelled defensively while Franson is above average at shot suppression.
Furthermore, Franson is 27 years old and more likely to sustain his current play levels, while Wideman is a 32 year old coming off a career best season that is unlikely to be repeated. The Flames may not get another chance to move Wideman for a meaningful return, while they also have the opportunity to sign Franson at a rate below what Wideman is making now.
Of course, we don’t know if Franson has any interest in signing in Calgary and we don’t know if Wideman would be willing to waive his NMC even if the Flames found a trade partner. That said, the evidence suggests that if replacing Wideman with Franson is possible, it’s the best bet available.