Cody Franson has been a lot of things to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s seen more of the pressbox than the entire MLHS writing staff combined. He’s been top 10 in defensemen scoring. He’s twice held out on contract demands, only to sign below market value. But last season saw him change from bench warmer to playoff warrior; and through the first four games of the 2013-14 season he’s looked ready for more.
Already in this young season, Franson’s importance to the Leafs defense hasn’t gone unnoticed. While the sample size is small, Franson is receiving 23:53 in ice time a night compared to just 18:47 last season. While it’s not unheard of to see players’ usage increase as they develop, a five minute jump is more than a 25% increase. Known for defensive lapses in his checkered career, the increase in TOI is coming at both even strength and on the PK. Coach Randy Carlyle has almost doubled Franson’s shorthanded ice time, a testament to the faith (or reliance) Carlyle has for him.
There’s also the little matter about his linemate, the solitary blue-chipper in the Leafs system, Morgan Rielly. Ahead of the season, most wouldn’t have thought to pair the two given their offensive bent. Yet Carlyle has entrusted the crown jewel of the Leafs organization to Franson. The early returns don’t look bad for the triple 4 line, either.
This despite being less than two weeks clear of the protracted contract negotiations that saw Franson miss all of training camp and all but the final two preseason games. A lot of pundits (this one included) thought that Franson would find himself in Carlyle’s bad books and back in the press box. Yet in an olive-branch move by Carlyle (one that shakes the very foundation of his feuding coach image), Franson’s coming over the boards more often and in increasingly difficult situations.
So why the upswing in minutes? There’s a lot of factors in play.
The first – and likely most boring reason – is that the Sicamoose, BC, native is the team’s only right handed shot on the back end. From a matchup standpoint, he provides a different look to the lineup than any of his D-corps comrades. Carlyle is fond of certain looks on the power play and in the offensive zone, and both Franson’s skillset and handedness benefit him. But luck and funny numbers aren’t the sole cause for Franson to see more ice time than any Leafs D outside of Dion Phaneuf.
A more controversial and disconcerting take is that whether fans like it or not, Franson might be the third best defenseman on the team de facto. Carlyle tends to favour players who he knows can play the style he wants. Carlyle doesn’t really know what he has yet in Morgan Rielly. He knows what he has in Ranger: not much. He doesn’t like what he has in Jake Gardiner, at least not every game.
But Carlyle does know what Franson is capable of, and clearly feels more confident with one of him or Phaneuf on the ice in all situations (a move similar to how he used Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin in Anaheim). And from the sound of it, Franson and Carlyle are finally on the same page and have a working dialogue.
Franson on Carlyle: 'He's demanding & he's passionate. He wants things done a certain way, done properly & he wants them done now.'
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 8, 2013
Yet most notably, it’s clear that Franson has matured since arriving in Toronto a few years ago. He’s only now a NHL veteran of over 250 combined regular season and playoff games, despite this being fifth season. In Nashville and Toronto, Franson saw very small, incremental increases in his playing time (14:11, 15:10, 16:11, 18:47 from 09/10 through 12/13 seasons).
He steadily played more in 2013 as he rose above the heap of replacement-level rearguards in service to Toronto last season. Yet it wasn’t until the postseason where Franson was truly given the minutes (24 a night) to prove he can be an all-situations defender. Unlike a couple Leafs players who seem to have taken a step back since May 2013, Franson has pressed onwards. He’s been challenged to do more for the club, and the message appears to have sunk in. He hasn’t found the cash yet, but he’s finally reaping the rewards of pairing skill with dedication.
Given his recent contract tumult with the Buds brass, many expected that this would be Franson’s last in in the blue and white. But considering his performance and the team’s reliance on him so far, he may have just become a key fixture in the top 4 for the long term.
Wednesday Morning Links: