Now, with a new season just weeks away, I hope what I’m seeing about Franson—that it may be difficult to sign him, that he could be moved, etc.—is not quite accurate.
Given my earlier Franson-related ambivalence, let’s call it deathbed repentance on my part.
Let’s go back a bit. I think it’s fair to say that most Leaf fans were thrilled when Brian Burke acquired Franson. He had played some significant minutes as a young defenseman on a very good Nashville team for two seasons. We all remember the highly respected Preds coach, Barry Trotz, saying during the 2011-’12 season that he wished he had Franson back on his blueline. (Franson, as a junior, had twice been to the Memorial Cup as a member of the Vancouver Giants, so he played in big games before he ever got to the NHL.)
But in his first season with the Leafs, under Ron Wilson, something did not feel quite right. I seem to recall (am I mis-remembering, as Roger Clemens likes to say?) that Franson actually started the 2011-’12 season up in the press box, and had to earn his spot, though he had averaged more than 15 minutes of ice a game as a 23 year-old in two demanding Western Conference playoff rounds the previous spring? (I guess that was part of the “no entitlement” regime, which still lives on, sort of...)
Regardless, while Franson that first season showed flashes of why the Leafs went after him (Nashville had salary issues and had to move players, including Matthew Lombardi in the same deal), he was generally not quite the player I—and a lot of Leaf supporters—thought we were getting.
But this past season, Franson showed us all something. Not a flawless defenseman, for sure, but he was a pretty steady presence on our blueline. The fact that we finally had a defenseman who could shoot the puck on net (even those of us who liked Tomas Kaberle all those years knew he hated to shoot for some reason…and then there’s Dion…), well, that was kind of a breakthrough. That he could slap it, use a wrist shot or just find some way to get it toward or actually on the net was like a newfound toy for fans. That he managed 25 assists in only 45 games under a coach like Randy Carlyle was something in itself, but he also seemed to find the physical presence and form that you generally like to see in most guys who are 6 foot 5 and well over 200 pounds.
Bottom-line: I usually felt fairly comfortable when he was on the ice this past season, including when paired, as he often was, with the surprising Mark Fraser, a clean but tough, hard-nosed, honest Leaf if there ever was one.
Franson played almost, what was it I remember seeing, 23 minutes a night in the 7-game series against the Bruins? And he also put up six points and was a plus player against a very good Bruins side. Franson was a plus player in the regular-season, too, and took a grand total of four minor penalties all season long. How many defensemen who play as much as he did, and with some physical aspect to their game, can say that?
The soon-to-be 26 year old from British Columbia would appear to be comfortable in Toronto now, and as a defenseman, especially, is in the very heart of his professional playing prime. I have assumed—not being a fan that spends much time on cap issues and related roster realities—that he was penned in as one of our regular defensemen for this coming NHL season. I don’t know if he will be a second-pairing guy but I saw him as at worst our number-5 defenseman somewhere after Phaneuf, Gardiner and Gunnarsson.
So here we sit with the Leafs still needing to sign a few guys before the season, with cap restrictions staring them in the face. We know Kadri is in that boat (that will get done; he is a cornerstone piece at this point, though I’ve long believed he was almost traded any number of times in the past) but evidently so is Franson, along with Mark Fraser, who may be headed to arbitration.
Some Leafers love what Nonis has done this summer, and believe strongly that we are a better team heading into the new season (with Bolland, Clarkson, Bernier, etc.) than we were at the end of last season. Other fans aren’t so sure. Regardless, Nonis is in charge (or at least he and Leiweke are), having just netted a somewhat mysteriously-timed five-year extension this past week.
Nonetheless, we are where we are. We still lack the number-one center we all—if we’re honest and not just rose-coloured glasses hopeful—know we need to be a contender, along with that elusive stud defenseman. But even setting those deficiencies aside, we also need to sign the guys I mentioned above.
I guess where I’m leading is: how indispensible is Franson for you?
Now to be clear, I’m one of the last fans—after years of decrying the absurd salaries that these guys take home—that thinks the Leafs should just pay all these players whatever they want. But given the ways of the world and the way sports salaries have evolved (astronomically), I have to set aside my views on that one and try to step back and determine if Franson is a crucial piece in the Leaf puzzle. Or would it be too costly to pay him (even if we could, given we are up against the cap, evidently), say, $4 million a season for the next who knows how many years?
My point is: I like Franson as a player. I thought he was a good young defensemen when we got him from Nashville in a salary dump move by David Poile. You’ve heard me bemoan the Leafs mis-developing (is that a word?) young defensemen over my many years as a fan (Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate are just a few examples that spring to mind). As much as everyone loves James van Riemsdyk and hope Carter Ashton will be an impact player with the Leafs, I was not happy to see the Leafs deal away young defensemen who may be pretty good NHL’ers some day in Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie. (It’s been said a thousand times, but it takes some big, young defensemen many years to reach their potential at the pro level. It’s so hard to find and properly develop good defensemen; sending them away makes not much sense to me…)
So I liked Franson when we got him; was not moved one way or the other a year ago, but see him as a valuable guy now. But at what point are you over-paying for a guy of his ability and impact?
I’d be interested in hearing how others feel. Do we need to keep Franson at all costs? Is 4 million a year silly money for a player of his ilk? Would you be just as glad to see one of the aspiring kids take a protected-minutes role behind the Leaf defensemen we expect to play a lot? Does the signing of Paul Ranger make you less concerned about losing Franson? Would you like to see Nonis take advantage of Franson’s current (perceived?) high market value and see if that nets us help up front?
Let me know what you’re thinking on this one….