Free agent defenseman Cody Franson could be a cheaper alternative to Brendan Smith for bolstering the right side of the blue line. Here’s why he makes sense for the Rangers.
After a disappointing end to the 2016-17 season, the Rangers need to overhaul their defense to contend in 2018. The front office already signaled big changes on the back end by signing prominent undrafted defensemen Alexei Bereglazov and Neal Pionk. If the Rangers also sign star defender Kevin Shattenkirk, Franson could round out their right side depth.
Managing The Salary Cap
The biggest obstacle to fixing the Rangers’ defense is the $11.2 million combined cap hit from from the contracts of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Kevin Klein’s $2.9 million cap hit provides another hurdle. Buy outs can offer some relief, but most of that new space will likely go to Shattenkirk.
Re-signing Brendan Smith to complement Shattenkirk is the best case scenario, but might not be possible. Smith’s standout playoff performance may have pushed his price tag too high. This cap crunch makes Franson an attractive plan b.
Franson is two years older than Smith and spent his last few seasons in Buffalo. The lower profile Franson should both cost less and require a shorter contract term than Smith.
A Solid Defensive Game
Rangers fans may be wary of adding a blue liner from a terrible defensive team. This is doubly true after Patrick Roy’s infamous phone call to Alain Vigneault last offseason praising Nick Holden. Being considered the best of a poor bunch guarantees nothing by itself.
Franson’s resume is considerably stronger than Holden’s. He’s the only defenseman to take a regular shift for Buffalo over the last two seasons and have a positive even strength corsi percentage (CF%). That means the Sabres made the majority of even strength shot attempts while Franson was on the ice.
Franson also does a great job killing penalties. Opposing power plays managed a lower frequency of shot attempts against Franson than any other Buffalo defender.
Franson Versus Smith
Franson is not as good as Smith, but they’re surprisingly close. Domenic Galamini’s HERO charts show how close.
HERO stands for Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic, a bunch of big words to ignore. They sound scary, but these charts just rank skaters’ even strength play in a few categories for easy comparison: Shot suppression (preventing shot attempts against), shot generation (creating shot attempts for), goals, first assists, and ice time.
Franson ranks a little below Smith in shot suppression, but still stands far above average. He also grades out slightly below Smith in shot generation, but the two are almost dead even in every other category.
Fans afraid of losing the physical edge Smith brought at the trade deadline need not worry. The 6’5″ Franson has outhit Smith in every season they’ve both played in the league except 15-16.
Franson can give the Rangers much of what Smith did at a lower cost. Both play a solid defensive game, kill penalties, and chip in a few points when they can. Few other players in 2017’s thin free agent market can do the same.