Unrestricted free agent Cody Franson’s contract with the Buffalo Sabres was rumored to be close Wednesday night and was finalized this morning: 2 years, $6.65M ($3.325M AAV). Franson was one of the most talked about free agents this summer as he was without a contract after the initial big free agent signing period early in July. It was rumored that he was close to finalizing a deal with Boston and he confirmed that he was in talks with several teams late July. In the end, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray and Head Coach Dan Bylsma likely sold Franson on being a large part of the team’s rebuild rather than a depth defensemen elsewhere.
Franson joins a particularly weak defensive core that boosts as Zach Bogosian, Mike Weber, Josh Gorges, and Rasmus Ristolainen as regulars. Buffalo’s thin blue line was part of the reason they struggled so mightily last season, giving up the 2nd most goals in the league(Edmonton gave up the most). As Franson plays the right defensive side, he’ll likely fit in with Weber or Gorges, both whom had a negative impact to the team (Gorges posted a –10.6 Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Weber posted a –3.8 GAR – compared to Franson who posted a 3.49 GAR this past season).
Franson has primarily been a depth defenseman in his career but will be taking on a larger role with Buffalo. Advanced statistics show that Franson is ready to make the leap.
Looking at Franson’s HERO Chart, his ice time over the past three seasons has only been that of a bottom pairing defenseman, but he’s made the most of his ice time. In almost every category, he’s played well above his ice time (Goals Against per 60 minutes of ice time (GA/60) is the lone exception). Many of which are about the level of a top pairing defenseman if not well beyond it. If it wasn’t for his very weak GA/60 numbers, he’d likely get much more recognition as a top defenseman in the league.
Franson spent a majority of the past five seasons on the Toronto Maple Leafs before getting traded back to Nashville where he started his career. Toronto only made the playoffs once in Franson’s time there, but lost in the opening round to the Boston Bruins. Toronto was one of the league’s worst teams for several of Franson’s seasons on the team.
Looking at the team’s Corsi% when Franson is on the ice compared to when Franson was off the ice, it is very easy to see the positive impact that he’s brought to his team. For several large stretches of time, Nashville and Toronto have been significantly better shot differential-wise with Franson on the ice. Even though Franson has been a sub 50% CF% player for a majority of the past three seasons, he’s outplayed his teammates on some very bad Toronto Maple Leaf teams. Even when he was traded back to the Nashville Predators in February, he had a positive impact on the team’s shot differentials.
Looking at War on Ice’s Hextally graphs, Franson has had a positive impact on shot rate differentials in both the offensive and defensive zones over the past two seasons. Offensive zone shot rates in all three regions (slot, high slot area, and points) and defensive shot rates in the slot and points are above the league average per 60 minutes of ice time, with the highest impact coming from the points in both zones.
Breaking down the shot rates against Cody Franson beyond the three major regions, Cody Franson has a positive impact on shot rates against all over the ice in the defensive zone. One main observation is that while Franson’s team gives up a lot more shots than the league average, they give up less shots when Franson is on the ice (note a much higher red concentration on the right chart compared to the left one).
In the first Hextally chart, it is important to note that Franson himself gives up .297 less shots in the slot than the league average rate per 60 minutes of ice time. But when looking at the team shot rates relative to the league average, Franson’s team gives up well above the league average in the slot (.24 higher than the league average with Franson on the ice compared to .26 higher than the league average without Franson on the ice). With Franson on the ice, the team gives up .02 shots less in the lower and upper slot regions, also known as the high-danger scoring chance region.
The high-danger scoring region has the highest shooting percentage of anywhere on the ice and the increased shot rates in that region compared to the league average can help explain Franson’s pitiful GA/60 numbers (shown on HERO chart).
When signing a player that has made a career of being a impact player on a sup-par team, one huge question has to be asked and hopefully answered: will the relative success translate to playing well on a stronger team? While Buffalo struggled mightily last season, they’ve rehauled much of the team this offseason and likely will be a stronger team in the near future.
Luckily for us, Franson was traded from Toronto to Nashville on February 15th so we can analyze how he played on both a bad and good team. Toronto was among the league’s worst teams this past season finishing second to last in the Conference. Nashville finished second in the Central Division this past season and was considered one of the league’s top team for a significant portion of the year.
When traded to Nashville, Franson accepted a depth role. This included less ice time (21.3 TOI/gm with Toronto compared to only 15.5 TOI/gm with Nashville), playing with stronger teammates (53.3% CorT% (average Corsi% of teammates) in Nashville compared to 45% CorT% in Toronto), and facing weaker competition (48.9 CorC% (average Corsi% of competition) in Nashville compared to 50.5% CorC% in Toronto) on a nightly basis.
With all of this, Franson was able to achieve a lot more both absolute (57.1% CF% in 23 regular season games with Nashville compared to a 47.4% CF% in 55 games with Toronto) and relative success. Shown above, Franson’s Corsi For% Relative to his teammates (CF% Rel), Scoring Chances For% Relative to his teammates (SCF% Rel), and High-Danger Scoring Chances For% Relative to his teammates (HSCF% Rel) were all considerably higher with Nashville compared to when he was playing for Toronto.
Looking at faceoffs, Franson posted a 57.5% ZSO% (fraction of offensive zone faceoffs compared to defensive zone faceoffs) with Nashville, but only took 41.7% of faceoffs in the offensive zone with Toronto. Relatively speaking, Franson posted a +6.9% ZSO% Rel in Nashville, but a –3.2% ZSO% Rel in Toronto. This figure proves the difference in roles between the two clubs, where he was counted on to help out in the defensive end much more in Toronto. In Nashville, Franson was playing alongside Shea Weber and Roman Josi who handled a majority of the defensive work which allowed him to step in after the puck was broken out of the defensive zone.
Based on these numbers, you’d think Franson achieved great success in Nashville, but that isn’t true. Production-wise, Franson only posted one even strength assist in 23 games with Nashville (he scored two goals and 14 assists to total 16 points in 55 games with Toronto). Franson posted a 47.4% GF% with a –2.6% GF% Rel to his off-ice GF% (with Toronto, Franson posted a 50% GF% with a +4.7 GF% Rel this season).
A low PDO in Nashville (97.1) compared to an average PDO in Toronto (100.3) can help explain the difference even though the chances were there. Nashville controlled over 57% of all scoring chances and almost 59% of all high-danger scoring chances while Franson was on the ice and Franson himself had 11 scoring chances. Much like Marty St. Louis in this post-season, Franson’s problem was that he and his teammates couldn’t finish the play. In the course of a full season, one would expect his point totals to shoot up and his GF% to be well over 50%.
To answer our question, it is very likely that Franson’s relative success will translate into absolute success with Buffalo as it already has with Nashville. Franson will be counted on for offensive numbers Buffalo but will have to be much stronger in his defensive zone for the team to have any success this season. While I’ve focused most of this post on his contributions to the team’s shot differentials, Franson can still help the team score goals. Expect him to get over his recent offensive slump and put up over 30 points for the third consecutive season.
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