The jokes were loud as the Nashville Predators descended into their losing streak: Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli brought the Maple Leafs curse with them from Toronto.
But now, as the despondency continues, a general misconception has arisen: Franson is hurting the team and putting him on the ice is detrimental. That isn't to say he's the only reason behind the team's sudden aversion for winning, but his name (and the trade in general) come up as soon as causes start to be rattled off.
How much, if at all does Franson hurt the Preds? If anything, Peter Laviolette should be playing him more than he is, as ESPN and Hockey Abstract's Rob Vollman argued recently:
But why, in the midst of a losing skid, is coach Peter Laviolette using Franson as no more than a depth option? For an example of correct usage, consider how Jeff Petry is helping to solve Montreal's similar problems by working five more minutes per game than Franson, while anchoring a solid second pairing behind their equally essential top unit of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
Picking up both Franson and Mike Santorelli from the Maple Leafs was a good move that can help put a legitimately great team over the top if they get to play, that is.
Since stepping into the lineup on March 21st against the Flyers, Franson has averaged just over 16 minutes of total ice time in his 14 games played, the lowest on the team. (Ryan Ellis is close with just under 17 minutes, but his minutes in the first two games back from injury were heavily monitored, and they've been steadily increasing since.) Franson's have been all over the place, and he's not getting much power play or penalty kill time. When looking at just even strength, his average dips to about 14.
Sure, Shea Weber and Roman Josi are entrenched as the top paring, and Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are practically a match made in heaven. But consider that Franson's current and most frequent partner, Seth Jones, is averaging close to 20 minutes a game. Especially recently, the disparity is rather large. Why is Laviolette keeping him on the bench so often and sending the other five defensemen to pick up the time?
Though he only has three points so far (all assists) his overall numbers are quite good. A 58.9 CF% in pretty easy minutes, and the team is getting 62% of the scoring chances with Franson on the ice. Perhaps he and Jones just aren't a good fit together? Well, in 82 minutes together at 5-on-5, the duo sports a sparkling 58 CF%, but their 33.3 GF% leaves a little to be desired. However, when you're on the ice for just over half a goal per game, it's going to look bad.
Which brings up the overall problem: Nashville just isn't scoring near as much as they used to. Since the trade, the Predators have given up 38 total goals and have a differential of -11. Purely at even strength they've surrendered 23 and have a differential of -2. Of all of those, Franson has been on the ice for only five, and one of them was a shorthanded marker in the waning minutes of Nashville's 5-2 drubbing of the Avalanche.
Of the other four, how many are on Franson? Let's take a look.
Feb 22: Tyler Ennis gives Buffalo a 1-0 lead
Look at all those stiff legs. With less than 20 seconds to go in the 2nd period, Nashville pretty much gave up playing hockey, and Ennis came in on Carter Hutton pretty much uncontested. No one's effort was good on that play. It was also Franson's second game as a Predator this year, and the second of a back-to-back on the road.
Feb 26: Erik Haula gives Minnesota a 1-0 lead
While just about every player in gold is gliding around the defensive zone, Franson parks himself right in the slot like a statue. In front of Pekka Rinne, who looks like he never saw the shot coming. Being screened is probably what Brian Engblom is referring to when he says Rinne looks upset at something. Not the best moment for him.
March 5: Nick Leddy gives the Islanders a 3-1 lead
If it looks like every Pred is moving in slow motion, it's because they got hemmed in their own zone after getting called for icing. Franson himself was on the ice for over a minute and a half. It maybe wasn't the best goal for Rinne to give up (he probably makes that save earlier in the season) but it's also not his fault for not stopping a shot from a defenseman that had enough time to call his parents before letting loose. Especially after the Islanders turned a lost faceoff into a goal by outworking their exhausted opponents.
March 7: Michael Frolik gives the Jets a 1-0 lead
Franson does what he can to poke the puck out of his own zone to Calle Jarnkrok, who is promptly bullied by Andrew Ladd and knocked off the puck. Ladd storms toward the net and through Jones. Franson, who is in obvious discomfort and looks like he's heading for a change, see's Frolik streaking past him. He tries to hobble after him, but between Frolik's speed and whatever is hurting Franson, it's no use.
It's really hard to lay a whole lot of blame on Franson for this one. Ladd just over powered Jarnkrok and gets the better of Jones, then sets up Frolik who takes advantage of an open lane due to a momentary injury.
Notice anything about those situations? Three of the four have been the first tally of the game, which probably doesn't inspire much confidence in the coach. They have a tendency to magnify the bigger mistakes, and it could explain why Franson looks tentative at times. Overall, the few goals he's been on the ice for have been more team breakdowns than individual faults.
Whatever the reason, if the primary objective of a defenseman is to stop goals from being scored, Franson is succeeding in that regard. The team is playing more in the offensive zone when he's on the ice and are scoring more as well... but just barely. That could turnaround if the team starts scoring on more than 4.8% of their shots.
Cody Franson the player isn't a problem for the Nashville Predators. He should be put in a position to help on the power play, as well as given a longer leash at even strength. However, if his ice time continues to fluctuation from "a little" to "slightly more than a little," the price David Poile paid in part to get him to Nashville is going to look even more questionable. Especially if he bounces out of town at the end of the season.