Let's get right to the point when it comes to new Buffalo Sabres defenseman, Cody Franson, he's really not interested in playing the left side on defense. He said so himself on Hockey Hotline, "I don't play the left side," he told the Hotline's Kevin Sylvester and Andrew Peters, "I actually struggle over there."
Which makes it strange that Sabres GM Tim Murray would sign the veteran unrestricted free agent, and it’s a little bit stranger that he would do so for more than a one-year contract.
For all intents and purposes, Murray is finished with the forward ranks this off season, unless something comes along that blows him away. In a matter of six months he added forwards Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly through trades and drafted center Jack Eichel with the second-overall pick in June. Add those three to some of the players already on the team and it's a pretty strong, albeit young, nucleus with plenty of upside.
Unfortunately, in the process of bolstering the forwards Murray had to trade away defensemen. When Tyler Myers and Nikita Zadorov were traded in the Kane and O'Reilly trades, respectively, the depth chart flipped and by the time the 2015 Draft was in the books, Murray was in the market for a veteran defenseman, “I probably need a veteran UFA defenseman or I have to trade for one,” he said post-draft. “I’ve been talking to teams about a left-shot D.”
The reason for the left-shot specifics was simply a matter of numbers. On the back end already were righties Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian as well as incoming Mark Pysyk. All three are expected to be a part of the defense corps opening night. Filling out the top-six d-men group are lefties Josh Gorges, Carlo Colaiacovo and one of Mike Weber or Matt Donovan. A wild card in the mix is 21 yr. old LHD, Jake McCabe who developed nicely as a rookie in Rochester last season.
Is McCabe ready for a full-time gig with Buffalo? Possibly. But the signing of Franson may be an indication that McCabe, no matter how strong a training camp he has, will probably be in Rochester for further development. And that's not a bad thing. It's been a gruesome two years in Sabreland and everyone's anxious to see the new core rise, but it shouldn't be at the expense of player development.
The 2yr./$6.65M contract Franson signed on September 10th is his longest since coming off of his entry-level deal when he also signed a two-year deal ($1.6M.) His three contracts prior were for one season each showing a gradual increase in pay from $1.2M in 2012-13 to $2M to $3M last season. Every year there were expectations that his next contract would be long-term, yet teams balked at long-term deals preferring to see how, or even if, he fit in.
Franson was a 2005 3rd-round pick (79th overall) of Nashville were he played in 141 games for the Predators scoring 50 points (14+36.) He was traded to Toronto in July, 2011 and it looked like he found his niche.
During his second year in Toronto he registered four goals (three on the powerplay) and 25 assists in 45 games during he lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and he helped lead the team to their first playoff appearance since 2004. Franson really shined in the playoffs with three goals (one on the powerplay) and three assists in a tough seven-game series loss to the Boston Bruins. WGR's Matthew Coller pointed out through analytics that over the past five years, Franson was third in the NHL in points/60 minutes on the powerplay.
Perhaps it was that performance and/or through analytics, as well as memories of how he played in Nashville that made Preds GM David Poile trade for Franson in February. Poile had thoughts of bolstering an already strong defense corps with the addition of Franson, but it never clicked.
Franson's average ice-time went from 21:23 in Toronto to 15:25 on a deep Nashvile squad. His special teams play which was around 5 minutes combined for the Leafs became negligible for the Preds. He played in the first five games of the 2015 playoffs vs. Chicago but was benched in game-6, a 4-3 series-clinching victory for the Blackhawks in Chicago.
Said Franson of his time in Nashville, "They had a very deep defense group three guys who were right-handed who were powerplay guys," he told Sylvester and Peters, "and the guys who played the left for them were also powerplay guys. That's one of the things I take pride in--working the powerplay. They had some very good players that were doing that already. I went from playing a lot in Toronto to playing a very different role [in Nashville] and it was a lot to try and adjust to.
"It just wasn't quite the right fit."
The perfect fit for Franson, it would seem, is on the right side with plenty of powerplay time and with the Buffalo defense short on powerplay specialists, he'll have plenty of opportunity to excel in that role.
Time and again Murray has stated that the goal is to improve every day and the signing of Franson should improve at least one area--the powerplay--which really can't get much worse. The Sabres, who finished last in the league in the powerplay last season, as well as second-last the prior two, need help and just about anyone with powerplay acumen should help the team get out of the basement I that department.
Maybe this is the fit Franson's been looking for. Then again, maybe not. It depends upon what he needs to be successful. And if it doesn't work out, he can look for another contract on another team in a couple of years.