In a half-season full of successes and pleasant surprises, Cody Franson’s growth as a defenseman was one of the best and brightest developments for this young Toronto team.
The 2011 acquisition of Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney will stand as another exemplary display of Brian Burke’s trading prowess. While the other three players involved in this deal have since drifted off into the realm of mediocrity and irrelevance, the 6′ 5″, 25 year old Franson has solidified his role as a top four defenseman with elite offensive potential in the NHL.
After leaving Nasvhille, the usual multitude of curious, hockey-crazed Toronto supporters scoured media reports and the far reaches of the internet (Nashville Predators fan forums) for the verdict on their newest defenseman. The findings indicated that Franson had an uncanny ability to get shots on net with fantastic puck skills, reflected in pinpoint passing and a knack for keeping the disc inside the opposition blueline. The negatives on his resume cited an awkward skating stride and an under-utilization of his massive frame in terms of physicality. Also cited often was Barry Trotz’s inclination to shelter his young blueliner’s starts as to avoid getting exposed defensively. In short: a large, very skilled defender that lacked in his high end speed, burst ability and defensive presence.
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Thankfully, two factors contributed to Franson’s burgeoning status as a high level offensive contributor, one that can also finally be relied upon to provide a modicum of defensive presence with a big dose of physicality. The primary factor was likely Franson’s natural growth as a player. Defensemen take longer to hit their stride, especially one that has been limited in both his role and deployment three out of the four seasons he has been in this league. Furthermore, the insightful Darryl Dobbs of Dobberhockey has long touted a 4 year breakout rule, wherein impact players break out in their fourth significant year of NHL duty. This seems to be the case for Franson, as he was on pace for nearly 53 points over an 82 game season.
Even with limited ice time in his first three seasons in the league, Franson produced at a respectable thirty point pace – chipping in roughly eight goals and 1.5 shots per game over a full season. Decent offensive numbers from the blueline for sure, but this dictated Franson’s role as a third pairing, sheltered defenseman seeing second unit PP minutes and absolutely no shorthanded time. Clearly, Ron Wilson thought little of Franson’s prospects for improvement, scratching him on numerous occasions last season and never giving him the opportunity to expand upon his role.
On that note, Dobbs and his writing crew have a keen eye for assessing and projecting talent at both the junior and NHL level. Presumably, they do so largely through using their literal eyes along with the analysis of basic (gasp) hockey statistics. They have long touted Franson as a “fantastic offensive defenseman” that needed to be used more to facilitate growth to his true potential.
Interestingly enough, after a year of misuse and abuse by Wilson, Dobbs wondered if the arrival of the defensive-minded Carlyle would further stunt Franson’s development. This was a valid concern based on the slight possibility that Franson could develop into a mammoth version of one-dimensional offensive wizards such as MA Bergeron. Surely, transitioning from the freewheeling Wilson to the gritty Carlyle system would see Franson’s responsibilities diminished even more, or worse – see his role as a frequent healthy scratch pave the way for a path out of town.
Thankfully, Randy Carlyle began by rotating Franson in and out of the lineup before seeing what many of us – except Ron Wilson – could. Cody truly has an elite ability to get the puck on net with quick, accurate shots. His gargantuan stick is deceptive with the minuscule amount of flex he needs before he can release. His innate hockey sense underlies fast and savvy decisions to harness an accurate wrister – whether he is going for the snipe or the tip. Moreover, he is a boon to any powerplay unit he is on as he rarely panics with the puck at the blueline, displaying a talent for keeping pucks in while making quick dishes to his teammates. In this regard, Kessel and Frason in particular have developed a cross seam pass that in many ways hearkens back to the chemistry Sundin and Kaberle once displayed with the extra man.
With that realization and the buffering presence of the defensive minded Mark Fraser, Carlyle put forth a pairing that rarely faltered and became one of his most trusted units as the season went on. Indeed, Franson’s offensive ability and physical presence culminated with Carlyle’s formation of the dangerous Gardiner-Franson pairing we saw in the playoffs.
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Why the fantastic performance by Cody Franson? In part, it is the aforementioned natural progression of a young, skilled offensive player that has been working on rounding out his game since he entered this league. Of course, the added ice time and powerplay opportunity gave Franson more chances to deploy his talent in the o-zone to the tune of a 175% increase in point pace.
Yet the most significant difference came from within Franson himself. It may have been a chip on his shoulder due to his usage under Wilson. It could have also been the realization that he may need to show more to his game to earn additional opportunity – but Franson worked hard in the offseason and displayed a new dimension this campaign. He spent hours with Leafs skating guru Barb Underhill, to good effect. He has also completely erased one of his earliest noted failings – utilizing his frame on other players. Franson has increased his hits per game by 300% since his rookie season, placing in the top 10 league-wide for defensemen in this category (running-mate Fraser finished second, with Phaneuf at sixth) in 2012-2013. This increase in defensive presence and overall involvement in the game even saw him get some spot duty on the PK.
Cody Franson’s offensive and physical dominance in this year’s playoffs – he still sits eighth in blueline scoring and hitting – is a hint of what is to come for the Salmon Arm native. At times in the series against the Bruins, he formed a lethal offensive duo with Jake Gardiner that drove the Toronto attack for large portions of the game. Of course, he also hand delivered a present to Boston early on in game seven.
Yet, as one of the many unfortunate Toronto fans that were at the Garden that night to get their heart ripped out in person, we were witness to a defenseman that then elevated his game in the most crucial moment of hockey this franchise has seen in almost a decade. In over 27 minutes of ice that night, he got the next two goals to steal and then establish the lead for his own club. Even the boisterous and belligerent of the Bruins faithful were left shaking their head in wonder at “that Franzen guy” when he ripped home that second period slapshot.
With his top notch offensive prowess and newly found physical dimension in the same intimidating 6′ 5″ package, Franson is just beginning to tantalize Leafs nation’s imagination with his potential. With years left to go in his development and maturation as a player, Franson should be in conversation with Phaneuf, Gardiner and Reilly as the four defensemen most relevant to this club’s success in the coming seasons.
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