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What If: Cody Franson had re-signed

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We’ve long been resigned to him leaving as a UFA, but what if he’d stayed?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins

In a recent Athletic interview, Cody Franson described a contract offer he received from the Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis in 2015. It was three years for $4.5 million, and he almost signed. After consulting with his agent, he decided to test free agency, and ended up with two years from the Sabres at $3.325 million. Oops.

What if he’d taken that Leafs deal instead?

I used to watch the Sabres, on purpose, I wasn’t being tortured or anything, and I also watched a lot of the end of the Leafs 2014-2015 season, and while the Sabres teams Franson played on were bad, that Leafs team was a special brand of despair, horror and dysfunction — as you all likely remember. But I’ve never been on board the hype train for Franson. He was clearly capable, still is, even, because you don’t play top pairing minutes on a fast-paced KHL team if you’re terrible, but there’s a legitimate debate to be had about how well Franson would have played in those three seasons that never were on the Leafs as they tanked, and then bounced back fast to a playoff team.

I’m not here to tell you he would have catapulted the Leafs to glory, I don’t buy that, but the alternate reality where he signed that deal is a different one to this. Is it better?

Franson isn’t traded

In our world, Franson was traded to the Nashville Predators on February 15 along with Mike Santorelli for Olli Jokinen, Brendan Leipsic and the Nashville first-round draft pick in 2015.

So the first thing that’s different about the re-signed timeline is that we noticed the death of Brendan Leipsic’s career in early May of 2020, but we didn’t do more than shake our heads and forget it quickly. Re-signed timeline is already better.

The more immediate effect of that trade not happening was on the Leafs performance on the ice. If you’ve blocked that season out of your mind in our world, the Hockey Reference graphic of game results is a good reminder of the shape of it:

Hockey Reference

The star, denoting the All-Star game, is January 23. Between then and February 15, the Leafs won one game. The rest of the season was markedly worse, and that graphic shows a slide into despair of epic proportions. However, it had already started well before the trade deadline and even before the Franson deal went down. Up to that point, all the Leafs had done was get Shanny’s old pal in Tampa to take Carter Ashton and David Broll off their hands for a conditional pick that was never paid to Toronto. They hadn’t yet made a move that signalled if they thought the team could return to their early-season form or not.

If Franson had picked up the pen, Nonis might have decided not to sell off at the deadline at all. It seems like Brendan Shanahan was just looming over him at that point, watching what he did. Nonis might have decided to play the cards in his hand in a game that was about keeping his job as much as it was bouncing back into a playoff spot. He might not have traded anyone that early, including Santorelli.

I’m going to use Evolving Hockey’s Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) to estimate how much that would have helped the Leafs in that season. If you want to understand SPAR, check out Alan’s story at Raw Charge, which is fun, has a lot of Leafy connections, and lets you discover how great Dion Phaneuf was that one year while you learn.

On the Leafs in 2014-2015, Franson accounted for 4.2 SPAR in 55 games. In Nashville, he was at -0.1 over 23 games, but if we use the Leafs number and extrapolate it out, he could have added 2 more SPAR. Let’s pretend the Nashville number reflects the usual trouble of deadline acquisitions not fitting in and go with the Leafs results where they end up with two more standings points by keeping Franson.

Other deadline trades

The Leafs traded away Daniel Winnik for Zach Sill, and two picks on February 25. By then, ten days after they didn’t trade Franson and Santorelli, the re-signed timeline Leafs could see they couldn’t make the playoffs, Franson wasn’t going to make up for all that luck running out on his own. The Leafs moved Winnik and Santorelli together in the re-signed timeline. They both went to Pittsburgh and the Leafs managed to get a prospect out of the Penguins in the deal. The Penguins drafted Matia Marcantuoni three spots after Leipsic in 2012, and he’s who they threw in. He’s a former OHLer, and a really interesting guy who walked away from hockey after an unrewarding minor-league career. Read up on him:

David Clarkson was still traded for the Nathan Horton contract, Korbinian Holzer was traded to the Ducks for a pick and Eric Brewer, but the Leafs didn’t have Jokinen to flip for Joakim Lindstrom and the St. Louis sixth. They would therefore never draft Nicolas Mattinen.

Once the horrible season limped to a close, and those moves had all been made, the Leafs were one point behind Carolina and still fourth-worst in the NHL. What if Franson had inspired his teammates to some less despair and they’d really played the Peter Horachek system with all their hearts? What if Franson was the difference on one lucky bounce, and the Leafs added one more standings point? In those timelines they ended up tied with Carolina in points, but “won” the ROW tiebreaker, so they finished behind Carolina in the draft list. Does that irrevocably change the future in the re-signed timeline if the Canes pick fourth and the Leafs fifth?

The timeline splits into two branches here. In one, the Leafs draft Mitch Marner, while in the other, they take someone else — sometimes Noah Hanifin, sometimes Ivan Provarov, and in some cases Lawson Crouse or Pavel Zacha. All of those timelines are very different, but the one where the Leafs trade Hanifin for Dougie Hamilton is my favourite.

We’re going to keep on the Mitch Marner branch of the re-signs timeline, though, with all that brings, good and bad.

Summer of 2015

The re-signed timeline Leafs absolutely traded Greg McKegg for Zach Hyman. That trade exists in all timelines. They also fired everyone in the greatest bloodletting in NHL history, hired Mike Babcock and entered the 2015 draft with the pick-trader Kyle Dubas influencing the more conservative Mark Hunter.

But without the Nashville first-rounder, the trade to the Flyers for the Tampa first and the Chicago second never happened. And then that Tampa first can’t get swapped out to Columbus for the second and third. Jeremy Bracco, Travis Dermott and Martins Dzierkals are never Maple Leafs.

With Franson locked down, there was a less-obvious need on the right side defence, and the Leafs chose not to trade one of the Pittsburgh picks they have on hand for Martin Marincin. Don’t worry, though, eventually they sign him as a UFA. All timelines also have Marincin in Leafs blue and white.

The Ottawa Senators ended up with that pick in our world, and took Christian Wolanin, but all versions of the Leafs have much better scouts than Ottawa. The re-signed timeline took Mathieu Joseph before the Lightning could get to him, and the complaints about them taking two little wingers out of the Q were epic. (They drafted Dmytro Timashov a few picks later.)

Sadly, the Phil Kessel trade still happened in the re-signed timeline. The pick paid to the Penguins was acquired in the Winnik trade, and the Leafs received the Pittsburgh 2016 first rounder along with Kasperi Kapanen plus the players and picks that eventually turn into bits of Jake Muzzin and Frederik Andersen.

All the rest of Lou Lamoriello’s deals went exactly as they did in our reality. At least at first.

Tankity, tankity, tank

The tank year rolls on, obliterating all previous records by proving you can lose a lot while having a really rather nice Corsi % if only you work at it hard enough. Franson just makes getting that nice Corsi while giving up goals a little easier.

You might think it would be harder to lose with Franson on the team, but his career in Buffalo reveals he was capable of playing on a losing side with great aplomb. His SPAR on the Sabres in 2015-2016 was -2. Even if he keeps Matt Hunwick off the Leafs roster, who produced -2.2 on the Leafs that year, he could still have been the same level of liability with few good forwards to play with.

When the 2016 deadline came along, the re-signed timeline Maple Leafs defence corps was not quite so hopelessly unbalanced on the right side. The motivation to take Connor Carrick in the Winnik trade with Washington is lowered. Instead they take lefty Christian Djoos, another Capitals prospect. Leafs fans liked making puns on his name, but they weren’t convinced he was better than the rest of their defence depth. He went right to the AHL.

The Leafs still grab Frank Corrado off of waivers, because you never turn down a freebie, and in all timelines, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock lay down a precision tank job, and draft Auston Matthews the next summer.

The rebuild in the re-signs timeline

Cody Franson, on his own, can’t make or break your team. His best ever performance in the NHL measured by SPAR was the lockout-shortened season, where it was near 5 standings points. His next best year was the split season between Toronto and Nashville. After that, three bad seasons in Buffalo and Chicago killed his NHL career. He spent part of that time in the AHL, as well.

On the Leafs, he may well have fared better. He certainly would have had a young and exciting offence that played a style of hockey he could more readily relate to in his final two years of his three-year deal, and it might not be fair to lay all his decline in results in our reality on age. His two most recent seasons in the KHL have been very good.

But even at two or three standings points per year in contribution, he wouldn’t be the difference maker in the re-signed timeline. In the 2016-2017 season, the defensive oomph came from Jake Gardiner at 4.2 SPAR. Franson is not in that class, but on the Leafs, he would have been floating on a wave of Matthews, Marner and Nylander offence, and he would have seemed worth playing in the lineup at least as the second pair right-side defender. The Leafs made the playoffs a little easier in that timeline, but they didn’t beat the Capitals in the first round.

The biggest difference in the re-signs timeline is the way the changes on the defence corps affected the way people thought about the team. Those people include Lamoriello and Dubas as well as the media and the fans.

The Leafs still would have signed Nikita Zaitsev as a free agent back in 2016; he was free. The endless arguments would have been Zaitsev vs Franson, and in that first year with the vast contract disparity of $925,000 vs $4.5 million, Zaitsev would have had a lot of supporters.

With Djoos on the Marlies, the feeling that things were set for a bright future might have been a little stronger for the fans. Djoos scored a lot more in the AHL than Dermott in 2016-2017.

In the summer of 2017, with Franson under contract for one more year at $4.5 million, Djoos lighting up the AHL, and Zaitsev coming off a serious concussion and an injury-shortened playoffs, the pressures around re-signing Zaitsev would have felt very different to management. He had a very lucrative KHL offer. He might easily have been pushed into taking it with a harder line from the Leafs in negotiation.

In most of the re-sign timelines, there is no Zaitsev extension. Instead, the Leafs played Justin Holl more in the NHL in 2017-2018, but Babcock still wasn’t happy with him. Holl sat in the pressbox for a week or so, and then he played again, rinse and repeat — it was frustrating, but he never became a meme. Franson showed a little decline and there was a clear desire to play him less. The Leafs signed Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, but without Martin Marincin, all of those players saw more time on the Leafs. The net result wasn’t a lot different, and the lack of a true number one on the right side was as obvious as it ever was. Ron Hainsey played too much.

Djoos made his debut that year, and he looked very promising. On the Leafs in the re-signed timeline, he’s just one of a crowd of defenders who can’t defend very well, and all the goals against get chalked up to the occasionally flaky Frederik Andersen:

As the re-signs timeline rolled on towards the playoffs in 2018, the Leafs picked up pending UFA Marincin at the deadline, kept all their own UFAs — including Franson, to much outcry — and went for it hard against the Boston Bruins. With no Zaitsev, and more of the exciting puck-carrying defenders on the team, that should have done it, right?

In our timeline, there were four effective players in the seven-game Boston series in 2018 as judged by the best advanced stats available. There were power play heroes and goaltending disasters, and some big mistakes that everyone remembers, but at five-on-five the four impact players were: Gardiner, Matthews, Nylander and Nikita Zaitsev. He had a great run of games. In the first few in particular he was a beast, and his pairing with Gardiner carried the team while Morgan Rielly floundered with Ron Hainsey.

Franson wasn’t good enough to be better than Zaitsev was in those few games in most of the versions of the re-signs timeline. Most of the time, the Leafs still lost to the Bruins and enter the summer of 2018 wondering how they can make the team better defensively without making themselves so worse up front the cure is worse than the disease.

The re-signed timeline Leafs had one thing going for them: Playing on the Marlies that year, they had not one exciting winger prospect in Andreas Johnsson, they had two. Mathieu Joseph, the late-round pick they drafted with a pick traded away in our timeline, scored one less point than Johnsson that year in the AHL in our timeline, albeit in more games. He’s also bigger, a bit tougher-looking and still full of skill. Maybe not as much skill, but in the AHL, no one yet knows who you’ll turn out to be.

Suddenly the Leafs had a genuine surplus they could trade away for a defender. But Joseph, Johnsson plus Kasperi Kapanen and even Djoos are too raw to package up and sell for a defender at that point in their careers. No deals were found, not until Jake Muzzin joined the team during the 2018-2019 season. It’s really not until the summer of 2019, with Dubas in charge, that one more forward who looks promising and one fewer bad contract to get rid of made the re-signs timeline diverge from ours significantly.

The massive summer deals Dubas made in 2019 all fall out completely differently if the first domino isn’t getting rid of the Zaitsev contract. In all the re-signs timelines, Dubas does things that shock and surprise, but in none of them does he get Cody Ceci, and he has cap space to play with... Imagine the possibilities.

Now and onwards into the future in both timelines

Fans in the re-signs timeline argue all the time if the Franson contract was worth it once he’s gone. They mostly think he was overpaid for what he turned out to be, even on a good team. They weren’t satisfied by the state of the team going into 2019-2020, and they don’t think the defence is good enough. But the truth is, they didn’t know how good they had it.

There’s as much random variance on the GM side of the game of hockey as there is on the ice. Drafting is a gamble, re-signing players carries all sorts of risk, and anything can go wrong or right. One fourth rounder looks like any other until you’re five years out from the draft and you have a clearer idea of what you have.

In most of the re-signs timelines the Leafs are still struggling to achieve the greatness their best players seem destined for. One stroke of the pen didn’t re-write history that much, it just changed the details of how the struggle played out. In those timelines and ours, we’re still waiting to see how this season ends. And how much better Kyle Dubas can make the team next year with this whole new set of challenges that face the NHL.

I wish him luck in all words. But I’m glad this one has Travis Dermott on the Leafs.