On July 3, 2011 Brian Burke made one of the best trades of his tenure. He traded away the following players to the Predators:
- Brett Lebda, who had managed 540 minutes of playing time the previous season, where he was the 8th D and managed a -14;
- Robert Slaney, a career minor leaguer who at the time was having trouble staying on the Marlies;
- Zach Pochiro, a 4th round pick in 2013 who has obviously yet to play in the NHL, the pick was conditional.
The Leafs received back:
- Matthew Lombardi, who was then making $3.5 mil per season, in the first year of a 3 year contract, while making it into a total of 2 games with the Predators that past season;
- Cody Franson, a 23-year-old D, who had spent the season as the Preds’ 5th D, at $800,000 for the next season.
Even at the time, this trade was a pretty big win for the Leafs. But in retrospect it looks downright foolish on the part of the Preds.
Yes, the Leafs had to take on Lombardi’s brutal salary in order to get Franson, but they gave up practically three bags of pucks to get these two players. It didn’t matter whether Lombardi was healthy or not, because the Leafs got a pick if he wasn’t, and if he was, it’s not like he would be taking a roster spot on a playoff team. This was the 2011-12 Maple Leafs after all. Nobody was – well, few, were – expecting them to set the world on fire.
So the real prize was a 23-year-old offensive D who had already managed 16 games of playoff experience, in addition to his 140 regular season games. That is a rare commodity. Sure, Franson had been playing “protected minutes” but he had been playing 15 minutes a game on the second best defensive team in the league. So Lombardi’s salary was payment for this prospect.
But something happened: there must have been some kind of miscommunication between the front office and the coaching staff on the goals of the organization. Franson was only allowed to play in 57 games – albeit at 16 minutes per game – because Jake Gardiner, at 21, was suddenly viewed as good enough to play in the NHL.
That may have been the right call with Gardiner – he looks like he is going to be a great player, if only his coach would let him play – but it was absolutely the wrong call with Franson. Franson is 3 years older than Gardiner, and already had two playoffs under his belt. More importantly, Franson was in a contract year whereas Gardiner didn’t even half to play in the NHL that season. (I can’t help but wonder what a team like the Red Wings would have done in this situation.)
It’s as if nobody on the Leafs asked the question about whether it was more valuable to see what they had in Franson in his contract year while letting Gardiner develop in the minors or whether it was more valuable to let Gardiner play on a bad NHL team while fighting over minutes with Franson and others.
So at the end of the season the Leafs still had no idea what they had in Franson while knowing that Gardiner was going to be a good player. You could argue that they already knew Gardiner was coming along nicely from training camp but didn’t know what Franson was. And they still didn’t when they had to extend him. And so they did, for one year. And then Burke got fired – rightly. And then Franson turned it on this season. (The coaching change might have had something to do with this.)
Now I think you could argue that Franson’s production this past season – like the Leafs’ as a whole – was a bit flukey, but it can’t be ignored. Just like Kadri, Franson made a case for himself this year. I wouldn’t argue for a moment that he is anything like the type of player the Leafs have in Gardiner, but he still was 4th on the team in points.
By not playing Franson enough the previous season, and giving him a one-year contract to prove himself, the Leafs put themselves in an awkward position when he did prove himself.
But the Leafs still could have solved the Franson question prior to training camp had they not signed Paul Ranger or extended Mark Fraser – though obviously the latter made more sense than the former – or had they not spent so much money on keeping Tyler Bozak or acquiring David Clarkson. With the possible exception of Clarkson [Editor’s note: Oops!], Franson is better than all of those players, and it is bizarre that the Leafs value him less.
So my question is, why did the Leafs even bother to acquire Cody Franson in the first place if they are so willing to let him go?