In June 2014, the Habs’ front office attempted to trade 6’1" 29-year-old Josh Gorges to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for 6’5" 26-year-old right-handed defenseman Cody Franson. The Leafs coveted Gorges’ leadership and defensive acumen, and were evidently willing to give up a toolsy restricted free agent with some supposed warts in his game. However, Gorges used the limited no-trade clause in his 6-year, $23-million contract to block the deal, stating that "after playing against them for that many years of being our No. 1 rival, I just didn't think it would've been fair to them. I wouldn't have been the same player that they would've expected me to be."
Gorges’ decision would produce a domino effect. "Stuck" with Franson after the deal with Montreal fell through, the Leafs ultimately signed the blueliner to a one-year, $3.3 million contract, paving the way for the BC native to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Meanwhile, on July 1st, the Habs finally got Gorges' consent for a move to Buffalo, and flipped him to the Sabres for a second round pick. Minutes later, the team announced the signing of right-handed defenseman Tom Gilbert to a 2-year, $5.6-million deal.
From Montreal’s point of view, getting a second round draft pick plus Tom Gilbert and a $1-million dollar annual cap saving was a pretty good return for , but the aforementioned domino effect does not stop there. Unfortunately.
A Sea of Blue
Before this season, Cody Franson was occasionally made a healthy scratch by coach Randy Carlyle for reasons which are unclear to anyone but the head coach himself. Since the 2013 lockout, among 203 NHL defensemen who have played more than 1000 minutes at 5 vs 5, Franson ranks 26th overall in puck possession with a +2.9% Fenwick Relative rating while playing against tough competition and starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone. This places him in the vicinity of established number-one defensemen like Drew Doughty (+2.5%), Victor Hedman (+2.7%) and Zdeno Chara (+3.0%). Among Habs defensemen in the same span, P.K. Subban clocked in at +4.2%, Andrei Markov was +1.1%, and Josh Gorges had a -0.1% rating.
If you prefer to judge offense by looking at point production, then Franson is elite in that aspect as well. At 5 vs 5, Franson ranks 17th out of 203 in production with 1.1 points per 60 minutes played, tied with Subban, Mark Giordano and Mike Green. On the powerplay, Franson ranked 3rd in points/60 minutes, behind only Kevin Shattenkirk and James Wisniewski.
For those who care about hits, Franson somehow managed to find time to lay the body 426 times since the lockout, more than anyone other than Luke Schenn.
Essentially, on the merit of his ability to drive play and put points on the board while playing mostly shutdown minutes against high quality of competition, Franson should be considered a number-one defenseman on most NHL teams, and could slot in as a capable number two or three on a Stanley Cup contender.
Now that we know what the Habs missed out on in Franson, let’s look into what they managed to retain, in Tom Gilbert and Andrei Markov.
Tom Gilbert is turning 32 in January 2015. He started the season on the second pairing with Markov, but has spent most of the year on the third pair with Mike Weaver, Alexei Emelin and Nathan Beaulieu. Despite being a strong two-way defender most of his career, he has not performed up to his usual standard for the Canadiens thus far. His advancing age could be the main factor in his decline. Other reasons why he is in the red, possession-wise, for the first time in his career includes starting too many shifts in the defensive zone and playing with anchors such as Weaver and Emelin rather than with the savvy Brian Campbell (his partner last year in Florida).
As for Markov, I am bringing the Russian’s name into the conversation because on July 1st, 2014, he hit unrestricted free agency in a seller’s market (Matt Niskanen and Anton Stralman were due for big raises, while the rest of the blueline selection were firmly on the wrong side of 30). Markov’s camp asked for 3 years at $5.75 million per, which is exactly what they eventually got from the Habs’ front office. Because of their historical performances, I have a personal bias against signing 35-and-over defensemen, At the end of his current deal, Andrei Markov will be 38 years old. Below is what I expect will happen in the meantime:
Between his age, his inferior point production, and the fact that his possession stats are propped up by playing with P.K. Subban, it could be expected that Andrei Markov would be rendered completely expendable by the hypothetical arrival of Cody Franson, thereby freeing up $17 million over 3 years which could have been used to secure Franson and one of the Habs’ many upcoming restricted free agents.
With Gorges and Markov long gone and Gilbert never here, the Habs’ top-4 by 2016 could very well be Beaulieu-Subban and Tinordi-Franson. An all-world offensive unit to unleash in the offensive zone and a shutdown duo standing at over 6’5" to mop up the tough minutes would be an appealing proposition for any fanbase.
All it would have taken was one fewer block.