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Signing Cody Franson would have little downside for the Canadiens going forward

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An analytics darling, Cody Franson sits unsigned on the free agent market, and could be a great add for a team desperately in need of help.

Chicago Blackhawks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

As the dog days of summer approach, the free-agent market has gone relatively quiet, with most, if not all of its stars being signed on July 1 (sorry Rick Nash).

With Shea Weber out for an extended period due to knee surgery, Montreal might have to dip into the murk of the free-agent pool to find a low-cost veteran to help round out their NHL lineup. While it isn’t necessary to do so, Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin value having veteran players both on the ice and as locker room presences.

If they’re looking for a short-term solution, who is still a serviceable NHL player and who should come cheap, they don’t have to look any further than Cody Franson.

The right-handed defenceman will turn 31 before the season starts, and he is coming off a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he split time between both the NHL and AHL.

For the Rockford IceHogs last year, Franson compiled a solid 28 points (9G, 19A) in 37 games, placing him in the top 10 on the team in scoring. It’s not that Rockford was a bad team either, as they made it all the way to the Western Conference Final against the Texas Stars. During that run, Franson played at a point-per-game pace, with six goals and seven assists in 13 games.

At the NHL level, he produced a respectable seven points in 23 games for the Blackhawks, who struggled across the board as they missed the playoffs. Almost all of his five-on-five ice time was spent paired with Duncan Keith, meaning he played a lot of minutes on the blue line in those 23 games. Perhaps even more surprising is that despite Keith being a premier defender in the NHL, he was boosted fairly significantly by Franson in their time together.

Franson/Keith 2017-18 WoWY

Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% SCF% HDCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OZS%
Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% SCF% HDCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OZS%
Cody Franson Duncan Keith 23 192.1 56.6 56.7 27.3 51.8 52.2 2.54 91.11 0.937 66.7
Cody Franson w/o Duncan Keith 23 131.2 61.0 63.2 87.5 58.1 50.0 7.69 98.11 1.058 60.7
w/o Cody Franson Duncan Keith 82 1257.4 51.2 48.9 40.7 51.1 43.8 6.26 91.30 0.976 58.3
w/o Cody Franson w/o Duncan Keith 82 2359.7 52.1 51.1 50.5 52.3 48.4 7.97 91.83 0.998 51.6

The duo was able to handily control the possession game, and in the minutes Franson was away from Keith, his possession numbers improved. The same cannot be said for Keith, who saw his overall metrics decline away from Franson.

To add that sort of ability to a bottom pairing would be a great way to stabilize the defence while Weber is out to start the year.

Of course, there is also the concern that when Shea Weber is ready to return, having added a player like Franson would block the development of Noah Juulsen, who broke into the NHL last year.

As it stands, with Weber out, Juulsen has a home on the right side of the lineup regardless of Montreal signing anyone. A lot then depends on what the Canadiens’ actual game plan is going forward. Marc Bergevin stated the goal is to make the playoffs this year, while a lot of his moves signal that the team is attempting to rebuild on the fly.

If the goal is to make the playoffs, then the Canadiens want to ice the best available lineup on a given night. As it stands right now, in most metrics, Cody Franson is a better option on the right side than Juulsen.

Bill Comeau/SKATR

Going back to his time with the historically awful Buffalo Sabres, Franson still manages to be a fantastic player in terms of generating shots for, and limiting shots against, even if the team around him struggled.

To put Juulsen’s numbers in context, he joined a struggling, injury-riddled Montreal team last year, and immediately had Karl Alzner attached to his hip. That’s a lot to ask of a rookie defender, and the question this year might not be whether Juulsen or Franson plays on the right side, but whether or not Juulsen should play major minutes in Laval instead.

That being said, the Canadiens could just as easily sign Franson to a cheap deal which can be fully stashed in the AHL if they chose that route. We’ve seen that Franson can be a great boon for an AHL side, and it allows a younger player NHL time in his stead, which makes everyone happy.

There’s not really much downside to giving Franson a one-year deal that is mainly to fill the void while Weber is out. He’s still a good defender when looking at his underlying metrics, and would help bolster a defensive core that struggled mightily last year. When Weber is healthy, the Habs can just as easily move him to the bottom pairing or in the AHL if they wanted to. They would also have the option to flip him for a pick at the deadline to allow him to join a contending team.

There really isn’t a downside to any of these courses of action — assuming they take any action at all.