Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson's game is ugly, but his pretty advanced stats mirror his real value.
Hello and welcome to “Eye Test,” a weekly column about players whose advanced stats and on-ice play just don't seem to jive. Across sports, the eye test—the evaluation of a player via repeated viewing—has become the natural enemy of cold, hard numbers. Too often fans use their eye tests to deny facts that threaten their most precious beliefs. But exploring why this visual-numerical disconnect exists with certain players can tell us something meaningful about metrics and the nature of how players are evaluated.
Like all bad ideas on the internet, the inspiration for this series came from a tweet:
Cody Franson is a good barometer of what people want in a hockey player. Good fancystats, good boxcars, but fails the eye test for many.— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) October 20, 2014
So this week's subject is the Maple Leafs defenseman, a player I’ve actually watched quite a bit. A third round pick (79th) by the Predators in 2005, Franson made his NHL debut with them just as I left Nashville for college in 2009. Having the NHL's GameCenter Live package in my dorm, I skipped whatever I was actually there to study and earned my degree as an amateur Fransonologist.
Even in Nashville, Franson proved to be a divisive player, so you can imagine the arguments about him in a town like Toronto that has 24-hour hockey talk radio. A six-foot-five, 213-pound, ponderously slow offensive defenseman, Franson could fill a Dr. Seuss book with the contradictions in his game. He’s a rarity among NHL defensemen in that he prefers a wrist shot instead of a slap shot from the point—and he’s practically made a living off of it.
Dating back to his Predators days, Franson has always been one of his team's best defensemen in terms of Corsi rating. All of his NHL coaches—Barry Trotz, Ron Wilson, and now Randy Caryle (to a lesser extent)—have sheltered him with easier minutes in order to limit his perceived defensive deficiencies and take advantage of his unique offensive talents (great first pass, deceptively good shot). But as one statistically-inclined Maple Leafs blog went to great lengths to prove, soft assignments only partly explain Franson's success. So is he genuinely underrated or are his numbers off?
What makes Franson so uniquely tough to peg is his inability to fit the existing mold of "offensive defenseman." Stat acolytes have come to the defense of plenty of speedy, highly skilled blue liners—e.g. Mike Green, Ryan Ellis, Lubomir Visnovsky—by arguing that their puck-moving abilities enable possession, hockey's most precious commodity, and thus outweigh any other shortcomings. But Franson is not a puck mover. He's not a particularly good skater and, according to data from Corey Sznajder's All Three Zones Project, he loves to dump-and-chase. (His 10% controlled offensive zone-entry rate was the worst among Maple Leafs skaters who played at least 250 minutes last season).
With all this dissonance in mind, I watched the October 18 Maple Leafs–Red Wings game and accidentally picked a great example of what Franson brings to the rink. It turned out that the big guy was playing with captain Dion Phaneuf (also a candidate for this series, but for very different reasons) in a not wholly-offensive role. Detroit's great announcing tandem of Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond talked a surprising amount about Franson, noting his disastrous game against the Red Wings the night before and their general admiration of him. At one point, Redmond—certainly someone no Twitter troll would order to "watch the games"—questioned why the Leafs always seem so lukewarm about bringing Franson back each season.
"It hasn't been a smooth career for Cody Franson so far," Redmond said. "There's always been question marks up there. I'm not sure why. He's 6'-5", has a great shot."
In this game, Franson (No. 4) led Toronto with a massive +16 Corsi rating. But the contest (spoiler alert!) ended in overtime thanks, in part, to his less than stellar defensive play against Henrik Zetterberg, who scored the winner in Detroit's 1-0 win. The night proved to be the whole Franson debate in microcosm.
And if you really want to unpack that last play as emblematic, there is something about it that is typically Franson. Two things he is not are tenacious and quick. He lacks both aggressiveness and the ability to close gaps on forwards. He's not a pylon at the level of 38-year-old Hal Gill, but there is a little of that fixed position in his game. He relies on his stick way more than you'd like from a 27-year-old, physical backline prototype.
That said, Franson is not afraid to take the body when he catches up to an opponent, and he is quicker to do that than he was during his Nashville days. He's more physical than he gets credit for, and against the Wings he did a good job of using his body to turn defensive zone face-offs into zone exits:
What really stands out while watching Franson, though, is his defense of the other team's blueline. His priority on offense seems to not be joining the cycle but keeping the puck deep in the zone and away from the blueline. His aforementioned quick wrist shot allows him to do that better than most. When he begins to pinch in the offensive zone, he's already halfway through the mechanics of his shot.
Here's a nice example of what makes Franson so good at generating shots and extending offensive zone shifts. He's always thinking about jumping into the play to send the puck back toward the net, and his release gives opponents no time to contest him. He pinched on nearly every shift I watched, either in the neutral zone or offensive zone. Here, a turnover by a teammate becomes a decent scoring chance for Toronto:
Franson also made a similar play in the defensive zone that stood out. He patiently watched a board battle, then jumped in to pass off the loose puck with a speed and accuracy that caught everyone off guard:
Back to Nashville for a moment. While coming up on Shea Weber's team, sharing Shea Weber's hometown, and possessing Shea Weber's size and penchant for shooting, Franson was widely expected to become a Shea Weber. And while he turned out to be very different, that's not all bad. Weber's biggest flaw as a player is the efficiency (or lack thereof) of his first pass, something that Franson does very well.
The reason why Franson fails the eye test for so many people is due to a lack of comparable players. (No wonder his salary arbitration case last July was such a difficult proposition. He and the Leafs avoided going to the mat by striking a last-minute one-year deal worth $3.3 million after Franson has sought $4.2 million.) There's just something spring-loaded about his game in that his role on the ice resembles a bumper in a pinball machine: He's a largely stationary object that will immediately propel a loose puck in the opposite direction with surprising force and accuracy.
When you think of Franson as someone who is solely concerned with propelling the puck in one direction, his role as a puck-mover and a dump-and-chase guy are reconciled. A defenseman who keeps the puck moving forward is hugely valuable, even if he isn't carrying it himself.
Franson may not be the defenseman you want in a one-on-one against Evgeni Malkin during the closing seconds of a tied game, but as any pinball player will tell you, a bumper can be a lifesaver.