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How To Improve The Maple Leafs' Defence: Learn To Love Cody Franson

Why the Toronto Maple Leafs should give Cody Franson a bigger role on the blue line.

Claus Andersen

Cody Franson's time with the Toronto Maple Leafs has not been easy. Initially acquired by Brian Burke before the 2011-12 season as the cost of taking Matthew Lombardi's uninsured contract off the hands of the Nashville Predators, Franson seemed to spend much of the year in Ron Wilson's doghouse; he was dressed for only 57 games and saw just 16:11 of ice time, second lowest on the defence ahead of only the struggling Luke Schenn.

During the portion of that season for which Wilson was the coach, Franson surpassed 20 minutes of time on ice in just two games. Randy Carlyle took over the team toward the end of that season, but Franson's ice time remained at similar levels. This season Franson seemed to be in a simlar spot, passing 20 minutes of time on ice just once in the team's first 21 games. He has been getting more ice time lately though, as he's played over 20 minutes in three of the Leafs' past five games and he was over 19 minutes in one of the other two games.

I've been a pretty big booster of Cody Franson for a while now. When the Leafs traded Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers this summer, I said that I thought Franson was the player who should step into Schenn's spot on the right side of the second defensive pairing beside Jake Gardiner. That pairing hasn't materialised, as Randy Carlyle is determined to waste one of the most gifted players in the Leafs' organization in the AHL for reasons no rational mind could comprehend but I still think Franson deserves bigger minutes than he's been getting for most of his time with the Leafs.

I've got some data to throw out, but before that I'm just going to explain what some of the terms mean for anyone who isn't familiar with some of the fancystats terminology. Corsi can be thought of as shot attempt +/-; it's a measure of whether a team got outshot with a given player on the ice (and outshooting the opposition is a key element in winning consistently). Corsi On is how many more or less shots per 60 minutes the team got with the player on the ice. Corsi Rel is the difference between a player's Corsi On and how the team did when he wasn't on the ice. Offensive Zone Starts is a ratio that indicates how often a player was put on the ice for an offensive zone faceoff rather than a defensive zone faceoff. And Corsi Rel Quality of Competition measures how difficult the opponents a player faced were as measured by the opponents' shot attempt +/-. Fenwick Tied % is what percent of Fenwick events (shots on goal + missed shots) the entire team got when the game was tied; it's an excellent indicator of how likely a team is to win its games. I've included a rank for each stat indicating how well Franson did in comparison to other defenceman on his team that season.

Year Corsi On Rank Corsi Rel Rank O-Zone Starts Rank Corsi Rel QoC Rank Team FenTied %
2009-10 12.76 1 11.7 1 54.3% 7 -1.047 8 45.5%
2010-11 2.45 3 5.5 3 50.3% 6 -0.673 6 52.0%
2011-12 2.80 1 8.0 1 52.0% 6 -0.698 7 44.5%
2012-13 0.17 1 14.7 1 50.0% 7 -1.504 7 45.8%

Two things quickly jump out. The first is that Franson has typically been given pretty easy defensive assignments relative to his team-mates, getting lots of offensive zone starts against fairly weak competition. The second is that Franson has been pretty dominant against that competition, placing first on his team in our puck possession metrics three out of his four years in the league.

You probably already know that Cody Franson is pretty gifted offensively, but here are some numbers to put it in perspective:

Year P/60 Rank PPP/60 Rank
2009-10 1.15 1 3.02 2
2010-11 1.34 1 2.42 3
2011-12 0.96 2 4.94 1
2012-13 1.86 1 4.70 2

Franson has been at or near the top of his team in points and powerplay points per 60 minutes played the entire time he's been in the NHL. Part of the results at even strength may be driven by the fact that he's played in situations that were designed to give him better offensive opportunities, but the results are pretty clear.

I think these two charts paint a picture of a player who has excelled in the role he has been placed in for four straight years. He's earned the right to face some more difficult assignments and see how well he can do. With the Leafs as thin as they are on defence, especially on the right side, there's really no good reason not to give Franson more responsibility. As you can see in the first chart above, the Leafs have been a terrible puck possession team over the past two years. Cody Franson has been a good puck possession player for his entire time in the NHL, consistently outplaying his team-mates (Corsi Rel). If the Leafs want to become a good puck possession team (and they should), giving players like Franson more minutes is the way to get there.

Who Cares About Corsi?

Having presented the data, I want to delve into a bit of a more philosophical approach here to explain why I think this all matters. One of the main criticisms of anyone who says that Franson deserves more minutes is something along the lines of "I don't trust him to play defence!" I don't think that's how we should be looking at even strength play. Let's start with the first thing, why puck possession numbers (Corsi and Fenwick) matter. They matter because they are, at the moment, the best predictive indicator we have of which teams are really good. JLikens at Objective NHL showed that a team's Corsi rate when the score is tied is more predictive of future success than goal ratio or winning percentage are. He also showed that Fenwick Tied is very slightly more predictive than Corsi Tied. So we know that having good puck possession players is a key part of having a good team. Franson is an excellent puck possession player.

But beyond that, I think the idea of players being good at "offence" or "defence" at even strength is flawed. At even strength you want players who drive play because they're going to be playing at both ends no matter how you deploy them. The reason for this is that, as I have shown, the vast majority of the game is spent in transition. Having solid control of the puck in the offensive zone for more than 8-10 seconds is actually a pretty rare thing in a hockey game. Because of that, what a team needs isn't good "offensive" or "defensive" players, but players who excel in transition; guys who can move the puck well and get it up ice. This is why a guy like Tomas Kaberle, who was frequently criticised for his defensive ability as a Leaf, consistently made the team better (and made guys like Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek look better in the process).

Related to that, the zone entries projected spearheaded by Eric T. has demonstrated that puck possession is primarily determined not what happens in the offensive or defensive zone, but the neutral zone. Being good or bad at one end of the ice is largely the result of being good in the neutral zone. So what we want to know isn't whether a player like Franson is good in the defensive zone, but whether he's good in the neutral zone. No one is tracking zone entries for the Leafs so we don't know for sure if Franson is strong in the neutral zone, but based on his consistently high Corsi rating we can surmise that odds are very good that Franson is a strong neutral zone performer.

So what a team should want is players who drive possession. Neutral zone play, not defensive zone play, is the primary way that a defenceman can do that. That's why concerns about Franson's play in the defensive zone are not nearly as important as how he controls play heading into and out of the neutral zone. His consistently good puck possession numbers suggest that he's very good at that. And that's why you (and Randy Carlyle) should Learn to Love Cody Franson.