Last off season Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray was looking to bolster his defense with a top-four, left-handed d-man who could possibly play alongside Rasmus Ristolainen, a 20 yr. old right-handed shot who had just finished his first full season with the club and looked as if he had all the markings of a top-pairing defenseman. The free agent pool was mighty slim that summer and in September of 2015, Murray ended up signing veteran Cody Franson to a two-year, $6.65M contract.
It was a curious move on many fronts. Most notably that it was a two-year free agent deal but also in that Murray ended up with a right-hand shot who had said he was neither comfortable playing with, nor wanted to play on, the left side of the defense. After signing with the Sabres Franson couldn't have been more blunt about that as he talked with Kevin Sylvester and Andrew Peters on Sabres Hockey Hotline. "I don't play the left side," he told the hosts, "I actually struggle over there."
That he did.
After having some banner years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Franson was traded back to the franchise that drafted him in the third-round of the 2005 NHL Draft, the Nashville Predators. Things had changed immensely on defense in Nashville since his first go-round with the Preds as they now boasted a deep blueline featuring an entrenched right side of the corps. Franson found himself on his off hand and in a reduced role which had him going from over 21 minutes per game in Toronto to under 16 minutes in Nashville.
Predators GM David Poile made the trade for Franson to add blueline depth as well as add his powerplay acumen which Franson displayed to the tune of four goals and 15 assists in 55 games for the Maple Leafs. None of it came to fruition in his short 23-game regular season stint and Franson's slow demise in Nashville ended with him being a healthy scratch in their final playoff game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
In Buffalo, Murray was intent upon adding a veteran presence to a very young Sabres blueline heading into last season and he was also looking for a player who could contribute significantly to an abysmal 2014-15 powerplay. Enter Franson.
The 28 yr. old got a break when the Sabres entered the season minus Zach Bogosian, a right-handed shot who ended up anchoring the second-pairing with left-handed rookie Jake McCabe last season. In the absence of Bogosian, Franson got his opportunity and was averaging about 20 min/gm, complete with ample powerplay time, through the first 14 games but he was unable to make an impact offensively. He had zero goals and five assists (three on the powerplay) and soon his minutes decreased with the return of Bogosian to the lineup. Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma gradually pared Franson's minutes to the point where he was averaging slightly more ice-time than he had with Nashville. Franson suffered what was originally diagnosed as a concussion in a February 19, 2016 game at Columbus and his season was done.
For the year Franson played in 59 games for Buffalo scoring four goals (one on the powerplay) and adding 13 assists (seven on the powerplay) while logging the second-most PPTOI amongst Sabres defensemen. With those stats, this is a big training camp for Franson as he heads into the final year of his contract.
Franson faces challenges on a couple levels as he not only needed to recover from his injury, but he also needs to make a strong impression and so far he's got the attention of head coach Dan Bylsma. “He needed to have a good summer,” said Bylsma to the gathered media last week. “He needed to get cleared, get fresh and then have a good summer working out. He came back with a little bit different body composition. He’s a little leaner. He’s moving better as a result of the summer he had, and it’s just got to translate to his play on the ice.”
The injury he suffered was eventually diagnosed as a vestibular disorder, as mentioned by Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News. Vogl wrote that it involves the parts of the inner ear and brain that control balance and eye movements and that Franson needed to wear special goggles and work with specialists all summer (for a link to the piece click here.)
Regardless of the injury, Franson has a long, hard hill to climb in Buffalo as he's buried on the depth-chart on the third pairing. The defense he joined last season is a year older and although he'll probably get another shot at manning the point on the second powerplay unit, Franson will need to do something with that opportunity. Last year he played a rather passive game which seemed to be his nature but one would have thought that he'd ratchet things up a bit when his ice-time was on the line. Or that maybe he'd have went in with the attitude that he would do whatever it took, most notably playing on his off hand, instead of coming off as privileged when he said "I don't play the left side."
It reminded this blogger too much of the dismantled core who's country-club approach had those in Sabreland wading through years of mediocrity. Franson, like some of the players from that era, doesn't seem to have the temperament nor the drive to make an impact with this new group of Sabres. Nor does it seem like he has the skating to keep up with Bylsma's up-tempo system. That said, he can still play defense and is able to make some pretty good passes on the powerplay so a third-pairing, powerplay specialist seems to be in the cards for him. He's a bit pricey for that role, but for now it will suffice.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons / RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta
D, Rasmus Ristolainen / Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian / D, Jake McCabe
D, Cody Franson
G, Robin Lehner