It’s late in NHL free agency, midway through the summer months, and defenseman Cody Franson remains unsigned. Sound familiar? Just two years ago, the summer of 2015, the same exact thing happened and, if history is any indication, the waiting game is just beginning.
Fresh off the best season of his career in 2014-15, in which he posted a career-high 36 points with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators, who had acquired the highly sought-after commodity at the NHL Trade Deadline, Franson was expected to be a major player in free agency. Franson entered the market on July 1st at just 27 years old and ready to cash in on his recent success. Only, that isn’t what happened. Even in a relatively weak market for defenseman, highlighted by the likes of Mike Green, Andrej Sekera and Johnny Oduya, Franson could not find a deal to his liking. Perhaps he priced himself out of the range that many teams were willing to pay for him or maybe he just didn’t get the fair market value offer he was expecting. Either way, the rumors surrounding Franson dragged on all summer. Franson stood alone as the major unsigned free agent through July, through August, and into September. It took Franson until September 10th, 72 days into free agency, to finally sign a deal. He agreed to terms with the Buffalo Sabres on a two-year, $6.65MM contract. The deal came in at an annual average value of $3.325MM, less than the aging Kevin Bieksa and streaky Michael Del Zotto got and most comparable to Zbynek Michalek, whom Franson had played far superior than in 2014-15. Many has speculated that his negotiation wore on as he decided between a short-term deal with a contender or more money and more term from a team in a rebuild; in the end he got less money and short term from the rebuilding Sabres.
After all the attention that Franson got two years ago, he could not have more invisible during his time in Buffalo. The poor fit with the Sabres was immediately evident, as Franson was denied a major role on the power play, where he had become a big-time weapon in Toronto, and was given nearly five minutes less ice time than he had with the Maple Leafs. Frason also never seemed to settle into a consistent role or on a specific pairing. Between a lesser role and ongoing injury issues, 2015-16 was the worst season of Franson’s career. Although limited to just 59 games, Franson nonetheless scored less than half of the 36 points he had registered in 78 games with the Leafs and Predators the year before. He also saw a massive drop-off in his defensive stats like hits and blocks. Buffalo fans were hoping for a rebound year when Franson returned to full health in 2016-17, but it did not come. Despite being given more ice time, the 6’5″, 224-lb. defenseman often looked sluggish on the ice, as if he had resigned to the fact that joining the Sabres was a bad choice and was simply playing to get through the season and get back on the market. Despite playing in nine more games this season than last and seeing the ice more often in each contest, Franson finished with only two more points than in 2015-16. Overall, the past two seasons in Buffalo were the worst of his career.
Perhaps teams took notice of Franson’s lack of involvement and apparent frustration in Buffalo, because there has not been much noise surrounding his availability this summer. The major difference between this off-season and the 2015 off-season in terms of Franson’s availability is that the rumor mill has not exactly been churning these last few weeks. In 2015, it was clear that the Sabres were just one of several teams courting Franson, with others like the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks hot on the trail all the way until the bitter end. This year, there has hardly been a whisper about Franson. This comes after he surprisingly stayed in Buffalo beyond the Trade Deadline as well, even though there was no doubt that he planned to leave this summer. Considering the size and strength that Franson brings, his track record as a legitimate top-four two-way defenseman during his years with Nashville and Toronto, and his impressive possession numbers (even in Buffalo), there has to be some other reason that Franson remains unsigned with little indication of that status changing soon.
Even coming off back-to-back down seasons, Franson’s availabilty this late in the off-season is shocking, just as it was two years ago. The defensive market this off-season wasn’t impressive to begin with, especially on the right side, yet Franson still sits waiting for the right deal. Ranked #22 in PHR’s Top 50 Free Agents, we expected that Franson would sign a two-year deal worth $5MM, down from his last deal with the Sabres but substantially more than what we felt many other blue liners on the market would demand. Last time around, Franson held out and got a multi-year deal, so it could still happen again. It was a toss-up between Franson and Michael Stone as the best right-handed defenseman behind Kevin Shattenkirk when it came to the 2017 free agent class, but with Stone re-signing in Calgary before July 1st and Shattenkirk going to the New York Rangers not long after, Franson has been the best righty on the market for some time. With Andrei Markov announcing that he will leave the NHL for the KHL next season, Franson is now the best of any defenseman available. So when will the action heat up? With almost no rumors to go off of, it very well could be another September signing for Franson, who may end up as an excellent value addition for some team. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils are desperate for some depth on the blue line, while the Los Angeles Kings were one of the few teams eyeing Franson at the deadline and have considerable depth issue of their own. There is always the Toronto Maple Leafs too; always on the lookout for that righty to pair with Morgan Rielly, Franson has always played his best in Toronto and could be a stopgap option in the top four.
There really is no clear answer to the enigma that is Cody Frason’s free agency. For the second time in a row, a seemingly solid defenseman has been unable to find a suitable contract and no one knows exactly why. He may end up signing a long-term deal to play a major role for an NHL team, or he could take a one-year “show me” deal as depth for a contender, or maybe he really has no takers and goes overseas. Who knows? One thing is for certain, no one will ever consider Franson to be priority free agent to watch for on July 1st ever again.