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The Case For Cody Franson

Many have argued - and continue to - that Franson is going to be "overpaid" in a year. Is that valid?

Jared Wickerham

Cody Franson's value to the Toronto Maple Leafs is debatable.  How do I know this? Well - apparently the Leafs think he's worth under $2 million a year, and he thought he deserved over $4 million a year.  They split the difference on a one year $3.3 million deal to avoid arbitration this past week.

But this goes beyond his arbitration case.  In recent weeks we've had Jonas Siegel and James Mirtle discuss Franson's value and how he's underappreciated - yet at the same time discuss how they think he's likely to get too much money as a UFA a year from now.  Before that we had postings from Maple Leafs Hot Stove suggesting his closest comparables are Jason Demers and Kyle Quincey.

Many people are swayed by the proverbial "eye test" that suggests Cody Franson is an inferior defender playing sheltered minutes who gets poor results (hence his -20 +/- last season).  Some of these people have soap boxes and get to air their views on the radio regularly:

Ok so Walker - and apparently others - think Cody Franson is an over-rated 5/6 D in the NHL.  Does this actually make sense? How can we tell?

Well - the most logical thing to do would be to compare his minutes and usage to players who see comparable minutes and usage and see how they fared in comparison to Franson.  Then it would make sense to see what they get paid, and how much they are valued by their teams.

What I don't think people should do is sit and go on about his skating, because frankly I'm not sure his skating is what matters when it comes down to it. So let's look at some comparables - and for this I'm not sticking to RFA or UFA... I'm just trying to figure out where Franson should fit on the Leafs D depth chart.

Quality of Competition

Before I go into depth on Franson in particular, I think this is a topic that needs more fulsome discussion.  In many corners Quality of Competition (QoC) has been presented - far too frequently - as a significant factor in long term performance by NHL skaters.  Players with perceived "high" QoC get the benefit of playing tough competition and thus have any poor results excused, while players with perceived "low" QoC get all of their positive results discredited because they played "easy minutes".

This issue has been discussed at length in a variety of locations. Eric Tulsky addressed the point in this posting. But I will highlight a couple of key sections here:

"We find that they [good players] are, as expected, more successful in their shifts against weaker competition. However, for the most widespread competition metrics, no player faces extremely strong or weak competition on average – the measured differences, while real and persistent, are small and scarcely worth correcting for."

"A simple regression shows absolutely no relationship between a player’s Corsi or relative Corsi and his quality of competition, and multivariable analysis suggests competition has just a very small impact."

"Everyone faces opponents with both good and bad shot differential, and the differences in time spent against various strength opponents by these metrics are minimal."

"...if there were players who played the majority of their ice time against top-tier opponents, we would see quality of competition numbers in the +5 to +10 range, but we do not see anything like that in practice."

"These competition metrics provide valuable insight into what a coach thinks of a player and how he tries to use them, but in practice they do not show differences large enough to have significant impact on the player’s results."

-Eric Tulsky, July 23rd 2012

You'll note that Tulsky published that work in July of 2012 - slightly more than 2 years ago, and yet people still consistently maintain that Dion Phaneuf's QoC is difficult and thus a cause of his poor results, and that Cody Franson's QoC is far easier which thus explains his superior results.

In other areas of the hockey blogosphere - David Johnson at HockeyAnalysis.com posted this article again dissecting the usefulness of Quality of Competition metrics.  He reached a very similar conclusion to Tulsky as demonstrated by these statements:

"From this and any other study I have looked at, I have found very little evidence that QoC has a significant impact on a players statistics. The argument that a player can have bad stats because he plays the ‘tough minutes’ is, in my opinion, a bogus argument. Player usage can have a small impact on a players statistics but it is not anything to be concerned with for the vast majority of players and it will never make a good player have bad statistics or a bad player have good statistics."

"Player usage charts (such as those found here or those found here) are interesting and pretty neat and do give you an idea of how a coach uses his players but as a tool for justifying a players good, or poor, performance they are not. The notion of ‘tough minutes’ exists, but are not all that important over the long haul."

- David Johnson, April 1st 2013

Again - no indication that QoC is a significant factor in player performance - though I would highlight the fact that this should be applied to players considered to be playing TOUGH OR EASY minutes.

If you wish to see further evidence I would direct you to this posting by Garik16 at Hockey-Graphs.com.  In that article - specifically dissecting the Toronto Maple Leafs D - he makes the point that Dion Phaneuf has performed worse from a possession standpoint against ALL levels of competition in comparison to his peers.

In an effort to highlight this issue, the other day I plotted a graph using data from 2010-2014 for a group of highly rated defenders (and Cody Franson).  On the X-axis I placed the CF% of every forward a defender had played against for over 15 minutes of 5v5 TOI.  On the Y-axis the graph indicates the CF% performance of the defenseman against that specific forward. *click on the graph to enlarge.*

Franson_comparables_medium
Note that the slope of the trend line for every defender on this graph is between -0.4 and -0.5.  They ALL perform worse against superior CF% forwards.  They all perform better against inferior CF% forwards.  The rate at which they get worse isn't constant though.  PK Subban for instance sees a more rapid decline in performance than any other defender on the graph.

Bear this all in mind when contemplating the usage and performance of Cody Franson.  Quality of Competition factors in the long term are virtually meaningless and not worth adjusting for.  They should have no significant bearing on our perceptions of Franson's performance as an NHL defender beyond informing us what his coaches think of him defensively.

Quality of Teammates

Cody Franson had the luxury of playing with Jake Gardiner for the majority of his 5v5 ice time last season.  That is a bonus and definitely warrants attention if one is looking to suggest Franson is undeserving of praise.  But it definitely should be noted that while playing with Gardiner improved Franson's CF%, the exact same could be said of Gardiner playing with Franson.  Together - they made up the #Leafs most formidable regular pairing last season.

Prior to last year, from 2011-13 Franson's primary two partners on D for the Leafs were John Michael Liles and Mark Fraser.  As you can see in the table below, Franson improved the numbers for both players drastically.

Partner TOI CF% w/o Franson CF% w/ Franson
Gardiner 867:36 47.80% 49.00%
Fraser 544:36 43.30% 45.20%
Liles 431:22 47.70% 50.80%

Obviously Franson isn't hindering the play of his team-mates, and considering the overall level of the team - it's difficult to assert that Franson is playing "easy" minutes from a possession stand point. Over the last 3 seasons, when comparing to other NHL defenders with 1000+ minutes of 5v5 TOI, Franson ranks 224th of 228 Defensemen in terms of his Team Mate's weighted CF% (TMCF%).  The only D men playing with a worse average level of play from their teammates are Corey Potter in Boston, Leaf teammates Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, and Jeff Petry of the Edmonton Oilers.

Seriously? Think about what that means for Franson, Rielly and Gardiner.  They are saddled with the crappiest possession team in the NHL as a group... yet somehow THEY are the ones being bashed for playing "risky" hockey.  It boggles the mind that anyone blames THEM for what we are seeing on the ice.

Offensive Zone Starts

This is the one area where Franson genuinely may be portrayed as getting beneficial treatment from the Leafs coaching staff.  He has historically been considered an "offensive" defender who lacks defensive skills... so his coaches have tended to load up on OZ starts for him... or at least - that's the general perception amongst fans and in the media.

The problem with this view is that generally he is being compared to his team-mates on the Leafs.  What this neglects to recognize is the fact that because he plays for such an atrocious possession team, Franson actually starts far fewer shifts in the Offensive Zone than the vast majority of NHL Defenders.

From 2011-2014 using that same list of 228 Defenders to see over 1000 minutes of 5v5 TOI, Franson actually ranks 181st.  He starts 29.0% of his shifts in the Offensive Zone.  That's a lower percentage than Rielly, Gardiner, Liles, and Komisarek - if we're focusing on Leafs.

If we look around the NHL his OZ start percentage over the last 3 years is lower than Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak, PK Subban, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Hamhuis, Dan Girardi, Paul Martin, Braydon Coburn, Barret Jackman, James Wisniewski, Rob Scuderi, Anton Volchenkov, Alex Goligoski, Kevin Bieksa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Oduya, Doug Murray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Luke Schenn, Cory Sarich, Dmitry Kulikov, Andrej Sekera, Erik Johnson, Matt Greene, Matt Niskanen, Brian Campbell, Anton Stralman, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Dan Boyle, Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Lidstrom (I know he's retired), Brendan Smith, Jake Muzzin...

If he's getting "easy" minutes because of a high OZ start percentage over the past 3 years, then SO IS EVERYONE I JUST LISTED.  So here's the reality - he isn't getting a particularly high number of OZ starts.  181 out of 228 is actually closer to the bottom than it is to the top.  It would actually place him in the bottom 21st percentile in terms of OZ%.

Defensive Zone Starts

So what about how often he has to start in the Defensive Zone? Well - again using that same list of defenders over the last 3 seasons, Franson is tied for 7th highest overall in terms of his percentage of DZ starts at 35.9%.  He actually starts in his own end with an alarmingly high frequency - more often than noted "tough minutes" player Dion Phaneuf.  Alarming is a good word - because a question that has been raised on this topic surrounds the fact that last season Franson was on the ice for a large number of Icings taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Taking an Icing would naturally inflate the number of DZ faceoffs a player is on the ice for as every skater on the team that commits the icing must remain for the following draw.  This could be seen as a criticism of Franson (though we don't actually know if he was responsible personally for the icings) - or alternatively it could be a signal of defensive play that defuses offensive pressure from the other team.

I did not explore which of these two factors led to the inflated totals this past season for Franson. What I DID explore is the variability of how frequently skaters are on the ice for icing calls. In the process I also took a look at the listing of the defenders that tend to rank highly year to year in Icings Taken to get a sense of what type of comparables we're looking at.

So for repeatability, the autocorrelation of Icings Taken per 20 minutes of 5v5 TOI has an r^2 of 0.1782.  This implies that a player's prior season's Icings Taken per 20 mins, informs 17.8% of what we should expect the following year.  Alternatively we can say that we should regress his number of icing's taken 58% towards the average number of icings a player sees in a given year.

For Franson in particular, while he did rank near the top of the NHL in icings taken last season (2nd amongst D men), he ranked 25th in both 2012-13 and 2011-12.  Ron Hainsey was 26th in both seasons as well, and players such as Marc Edouard Vlasic, Shea Weber, Kevin Bieksa, PK Subban, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Andrej Sekera, Mark Giordano, Ryan Suter, Barret Jackman, and Braydon Coburn have ranked in the top 20 by this metric over the past 4 years.

In summary - I fail to see any logical reason to assume that being in the defensive zone when your team ices the puck is an inherently "bad" or "negative" defensive play.  Icing does not solely result from being pressured in the offensive zone disproportionately, and in fact often results from missed breakout passes (an area of weakness for the Leafs in recent years).  Franson has iced the puck less frequently than a laundry list of top D men around the NHL over the past 4 years. If people wish to criticize Franson for being on the ice in such situations, then they should probably start criticizing most of the top defenders in the NHL.

dCorsi - Possession Performance in Comparison to Expected

Last week I published a bunch of my findings and background work relating to dCorsi on this site.  In essence, the point of the statistic is to compare players with similar usage and to identify who is outperforming the minutes they are being assigned from a possession stand point.

Cody Franson has had a positive dCorsi for each of the past 5 seasons in a row.  He has outperformed his Expected Corsi every season he's played in the NHL - including all of his tenure with the Leafs.  What follows is the ranking of NHL Defenders by Combined dCorsi Impact over the past 7 years.  This is literally the cream of the possession crop of D men over the last 7 years.

*dCorsi Impact is defined as a skater's dCorsi (Corsi performance above or below Expectations per 20 minutes) multiplied by their 5v5 TOI.

Rank Player Tot 5v5 TOI Tot dCorsi Impact Avg dCorsi Impact
1 Lubomir Visnovsky 5677.96 777.24 129.54
2 Zdeno Chara 9408.35 767.36 109.62
3 Kimmo Timonen 7171.52 681.68 97.38
4 Anton Stralman 5731.27 489.16 69.88
5 Mark Giordano 6258.77 488.94 81.49
6 Nicklas Lidstrom 6407.50 460.34 92.07
7 Cody Franson 4398.68 448.47 89.69
8 Brian Rafalski 4917.20 407.37 101.84
9 Matt Niskanen 6454.63 394.61 65.77
10 Dustin Byfuglien 7597.33 389.76 55.68
11 TJ Brodie 3105.43 377.73 125.91
12 Paul Martin 6464.33 349.29 49.90
13 Cory Sarich 6233.00 340.25 48.61
14 Fedor Tyutin 8119.05 339.10 48.44
15 Mike Weaver 5554.55 330.29 55.05
16 Adrian Aucoin 6316.15 321.06 53.51
17 James Wisniewski 4617.78 319.86 63.97
18 Alec Martinez 2557.88 318.99 79.75
19 Johnny Boychuk 5253.30 311.92 62.38
20 Stephane Robidas 7146.97 304.64 50.77
21 Jake Muzzin 1843.10 292.55 146.28
22 P.K. Subban 4739.00 286.93 71.73
23 Christian Ehrhoff 8355.77 284.26 40.61
24 Kris Letang 6621.43 280.31 40.04
25 Matt Greene 5515.53 275.22 45.87

So apparently Cody Franson keeps some VERY good company so far in his 5 year NHL career statistically. Also here I would like to note that part of my purpose in raising the discussion of QoC earlier is to highlight the fact that Zone Starts, Team Quality (QoT), Age, and TOI/60 are the prime factors in determining Expected Corsi.  QoC is NOT particularly meaningful and thus doesn't give us much information about what we should expect from a skater.

Considering how difficult his minutes have been, he's doing quite well - despite what people seem to think or perceive.

Conclusions

Ok - so in terms of basic point production for D men at 5v5 Cody Franson ranks 18th in the NHL in pts/60 since joining the Leafs. On the powerplay at 5v4 he ranks 3rd behind Weber and Pieterangelo in pts/60.

His situational usage has been abysmal compared to most of the rest of the NHL in terms of Zone Starts thanks to playing for the Leafs.  He has gotten to play with good partners (Gardiner), bad partners (Fraser) and guys who were ok but not amazing (Liles).  We shouldn't really pay any attention to his Quality of Competition over the long term because it's basically irrelevant.

So basically we have a player that drives play in the right direction (so well in fact he's a top 10 Defender by dCorsi over the last 7 years).  He produces points like a top 20 D man, and he quarterbacks the powerplay remarkably well.  Even if everyone acknowledges (and I hope they do) that producing points is NOT the main purpose of an NHL defender, it's difficult to deny Franson has a history of being productive... though if you care to do so you can.

In all honesty I personally feel that if you look at ALL of these numbers, consider Franson's usage and the "context" of his play and still come away thinking "skates bad - not worth keeping" I think you're sort of crazy.  I'll let you all discuss and debate in the comments - but I'm pretty confident whoever signs Franson as a UFA will be relatively happy with what they get.  I hope the Leafs extend him and recognize what they have before it's too late.