In my last two articles I discussed Ryan O’Reilly’s upcoming club-elected salary arbitration with Colorado Avalanche and James Reimer’s player elected salary arbitration with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a continuing series of articles on salary arbitration, I’m now going to break down how (and why) I think the Cody Franson arbitration with the Toronto Maple Leafs – set for this Monday July, 21st – will play out.
In the last two articles I outlined the mechanics behind the salary arbitration system set-out in Article 12 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), so for the most part in this piece I’ll skip past the nuts and bolts and get right into what I think he’s worth. But, before I do, there are a couple of key provisions that need to be highlighted.
Cody Franson is a Group 2 Restricted Free Agent (“RFA”) because the Toronto Maple Leafs extended him a qualifying contract offer in accordance with Article 10.2(a)(ii)(C) of the CBA. In order to do so, the Club had to offer him 100% his actual salary from the preceding season, which was a $2 million dollar 1 year pact that was signed after he held out from training camp last year. In other words, they had to offer him $ 2 million dollars for next season, which he rejected. Like Reimer, this is Franson’s final off-season as an RFA as he’ll be 27 years of age before June 30th of next year, meaning he will be a Group 3 Unrestricted Free Agent (“UFA”) — as provided by Article 10.1 — whenever his next contract expires (which will be July 1st, 2015 unless he and the Maple Leafs reach a multi-year agreement before Monday’s arbitration hearing).
As I described in my previous pieces on Reimer and O’Reilly, during arbitration the Player and the Club will be permitted to lead evidence about Franson’s statistical performance in previous seasons and also be allowed to lead evidence about allegedly comparable players’ performance in order to identify a relevant salary range. The comparison evidence isn’t unlimited, however, and Article 12.9(g)(iii)(A) states that the Player and Club are only allowed introduce as evidence contracts which were signed when the relevant player was also a Group 2 RFA. A further restriction –- per Article 12.9(g)(ii)(A) — is that an agent (or other representative) can only put before an arbitrator statistical evidence that is officially maintained by the National Hockey League; meaning goals, assists, plus/minus, hits, shots etc. (sorry, advanced stats fans).
Unlike a goaltender, where there is likely to be only a handful of comparable players available to put forward as evidence, there are a fair number of 30-40 point defenseman who have signed contracts as RFAs. The task of compiling statistical evidence that lies ahead of Cody Franson’s agent Gerry Johannson is more daunting than it will be for Reimer’s agent Ray Petkau.
If I was Gerry Johannson, my list would include the following defensemen (at the very least).
Cody Franson Comparables
|Defenseman||Age||Shoots||Comparator(Regular Season)||GP||G||A||PTS||+/-||PPG||PPA||SHG||SHA||GWG||PIMS||Shots||Hits||Current ContractYears & AAV|
|Michael Del Zotto||24||L||Career||317||27||99||126||-8||8||48||2||2||3||124||423||593||Expiring 2 x $2.55 million|
|Season deal was signed||77||10||31||41||20||1||13||1||2||2||36||113||156|
|Kris Russell||27||L||Career||432||30||94||124||-21||8||35||0||2||5||160||578||345||2 x $2.6 million|
|Season deal was signed||68||7||22||29||-11||4||8||0||1||1||15||109||42|
|Nick Leddy||23||L||Career||258||20||73||93||10||6||24||0||0||3||34||319||183||2 x $2.7 million|
|Season deal was signed||48||6||12||18||15||2||6||0||0||2||10||65||38|
|Kevin Klein||29||R||Career||433||17||71||88||-23||1||1||0||3||2||110||441||547||5 x $2.9 million|
|Season deal was signed||66||4||17||21||-8||0||1||0||1||2||4||91||66|
|Johnny Boychuk||30||R||Career||321||19||56||75||89||1||4||0||4||4||198||641||594||3 x $3.37 million|
|Season deal was signed||77||5||10||15||27||0||0||0||0||2||53||171||145|
|Jason Demers||26||R||Career||280||16||79||95||26||6||25||0||1||2||111||362||290||2 x $3.4 million|
|Season deal was signed||75||5||29||34||14||1||8||0||1||0||30||105||69|
|John Carlson||24||R||Career||316||33||101||134||25||10||30||0||2||3||114||622||305||6 x $3.97 million|
|Season deal was signed||82||9||23||32||-15||4||3||0||0||0||22||152||83|
|Roman Josi||24||L||Career||172||23||51||74||-8||5||19||0||0||3||40||328||96||7 x $4 million|
|Season deal was signed||48||5||13||18||-7||1||6||0||0||1||8||96||31|
|Slava Voynov||24||R||Career||184||18||61||79||23||5||22||0||0||4||70||308||322||6 x $ 4.167 million|
|Season deal was signed||48||6||19||25||5||1||7||0||0||2||14||79||83|
|Kyle Quincey||28||L||Career||375||23||88||111||-3||7||47||0||4||4||356||651||477||2 x $4.25 million|
|Season deal was signed||82||4||9||13||-5||0||0||0||0||1||88||106||88|
|Last season||79||5||28||33||-20||1||17||0||0||0||30||115||282||Expiring deal: 1 x $2.0|
Looking at the group of comparators, we can quickly deduce that the relevant range from Cody Franson runs from $2.55 million to $4.25 million per season. So, there’s absolutely no doubt that Cody Franson is getting a raise; the only question is where (and why) does he fit in this range?
Looking at the comparable players above, one of the things that immediately (and perhaps surprisingly) stands out is that Cody Franson delivers a tremendous amount of body checks. With 644 hits in 322 games, Cody Franson has averaged two registered hits per game over the course of his career, which is tops among defenders included in this list both as an absolute and average number. Another area where Cody Franson excels is in registering shots on net. This comes as no surprise to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs who will begrudgingly admit that this player’s ability to unerringly get the puck through to the net is a major asset on the powerplay.
Looking at point production, Cody Franson is second on this list in total career points scored (one point behind John Carlson) despite being only fourth in games played (behind Klein, Russell, and Quincey respectively, and only slightly ahead of Carlson). Franson is also third in career powerplay points, and tied for first in game-winning goals. All of which is to say, like it or not, Cody Franson is a difference maker on the ice amidst this list of comparable defensemen. Franson is also ranked sixth on this list for career plus/minus; say what you will about his playing sheltered minutes, but I’d argue that Russell and Del Zotto are similarly deployed and both earn more money with significantly worse career plus/minuses.
Other factors that I would raise as evidence in Cody Franson’s favour are that he led his Club in points from the defence corps in both of the last two seasons, has consistently anchored the Club’s first powerplay unit, and is a coveted (and rare) right-handed defenseman with size.
On the flip side, if you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs and you’re trying to minimize the amount of compensation that the arbitrator is going to award the player, there are some negatives attributes that will have to be raised. Firstly, the Club will allege that Franson is a defensive liability (as evidenced by last season’s horrendous -20 rating) and that as a result his coach is forced to play him against lesser competition and give him relatively more offensive zone starts. Of course, the corollary of getting relatively more offensive zone starts is that the player is bound to score more points, which (arguably) discounts some of the fact that he’s lead the Club in points from the defense corps the last two seasons. In an ironic twist, the Club should argue that if Franson were more trustworthy in his own zone, he might actually score fewer points.
Another point the Club could raise is that Franson is arguably an off-ice distraction to his team, having complained to the press about insufficient ice-time in the past, while also having held out of training camp the previous year, as well as being involved in on-going legal challenges in his home province. None of these points are definitive by any stretch, but they are a means to demonstrate to an arbitrator that despite the relatively positive stat line, there are defensible reasons why the Club is resisting the player’s contract demands. If I’m the Toronto Maple Leafs, I’d also argue that while Cody Franson is a valuable complementary player, he is very likely overshadowed on his own Club by as many as 4 or 5 other defenseman, meaning his role on the Club will be that of a third-pairing defenseman with additional powerplay time and he should be compensated accordingly.
So, just what is fair compensation for Cody Franson? Looking at the list above, it might be tempting to conclude that, given their relatively similar stats lines, Cody Franson might be worthy of a contract in and around the $3.9 to $4 million dollar per season salary that players like John Carlson, Roman Josi and Slava Voynov are earning. While it’s true that their basic stat lines are comparable (for arbitration purposes), the issues with using these players as comparisons are multi-fold. Firstly, these players are younger than Cody Franson and are already as good (if not better) players than Cody Franson, and likely have more room to improve than he does; the gap is likely to widen. Furthermore, and just as importantly, these players are signed to multi-year deals in which the Club has prepaid for future potential, and also future UFA seasons, both of which come at a cost premium. One could argue that the contract signed today by Dmitry Kulikov is yet another example of this theory. As with all such contracts, the Club pays a premium upfront on the gamble that the player’s improving play and rising salary cap will see the contract become a relative bargain sooner than later. While these contracts make a lot of sense to sign in certain cases, for all of the reasons I’ve just explained they’re entirely inapplicable as a comparator for an arbitrator that can only award a one-year contract to a soon-to-be 27 year-old defenseman.
Having (I think fairly) discounted those three players, the next most comparable player is Jason Demers of the San Jose Sharks. This off-season Demers signed a two-year $3.4 million dollar per season contract, and given his comparable age, career stage and relatively similar performance last season (leaving aside his far superior plus/minus given that he played for the Sharks who had an incredible regular season), this is a fair comparison for Cody Franson. However, if I’m Gerry Johannson I’m looking at the two-year $4.25 million contract that Kyle Quincey just signed and I’m explaining to the arbitrator that my client has outperformed Kyle Quincey in almost every major statistical category both over their respective careers and last season. And therein lies the rub. How do you reconcile the Kyle Quincey and Jason Demers contracts if you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs and/or the salary arbitrator?
One way to do so would be to recognize that Quincey’s last contract was a two-year deal worth an average of $3.775 million per season, signed by Detroit shortly after reacquiring Quincey from the Colorado Avalanche, where he’d been a valuable and productive player (for a 1st round draft choice and a prospect). Having already established that Quincey was worth nearly $4 million per season two years ago under a lower salary cap, and recognizing that 28 year old defensemen rarely (if ever) take a pay cut and that Detroit is desperate for defensemen, we can see that — statistics aside — Detroit really had no option but to pay Quincey in excess of $4 million to retain him. On that basis, you could argue that the Quincey contract is an outlier as far as comparisons go, and that it should receive relatively less weight as comparator evidence.
However, even if the contract were to receive less weight, I don’t see how it can be completely discounted and for that reason I think you’ll see an arbitrator award Cody Franson a one-year contract carrying a salary between Jason Demers’ and Kyle Quincey’s; likely amounting to about $3.6 to $3.7 million for next season.
For those keeping track, Article 12.10(d) of the CBA provides that a Club can walk-away from an award that reaches the applicable threshold, which was $3.5 million for 2013-2014. However, the walk-way threshold is tied to the increase in Average Salary in the NHL and therefore rises year-over-year. The NHL has not yet released the Average Salary figure for the 2014-2015 season (which will be the number relevant to determining the walk-away figure for Cody Franson), but if the Average Salary increases in the manner that some have predicted, the walk-away figure applicable to Cody Franson should be an award just shy of $4 million. All of which means that — barring a trade, either before or after the arbitrator renders his decision (the CBA does not restrict such a transfer despite popular belief) — fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs can be virtually certain that they’ll have at least one more season of Cody Franson manning the point on the powerplay.