Shopping season for NHL free agents is usually long over by the time early September rolls around as teams are already in training camp mode. Not this year.
Many players are still without jobs as clubs struggle with tight salary caps and are wary of the continuing drop in the Canadian dollar. The Buffalo Sabres took advantage of that odd confluence Thursday, adding a top-four defenseman the likes of which you normally don’t see at this point in the hockey calendar.
Capping off a quest first reported by The Buffalo News on Aug. 27, the Sabres signed former Toronto and Nashville defenseman Cody Franson to a two-year deal worth $6.65 million. Franson, 28, split last year between the Leafs and Predators and had a career-high 36 points.
After three straight one-year deals, Franson was looking for something long-term. But the market dried up and his late-season struggles in Nashville depressed his value.
The Sabres were the only real multiyear deal he got. Boston and Pittsburgh were known to be pushing him for a one-year pact.
“There was some intriguing stuff out there,” Franson said Thursday in First Niagara Center. “But I’ve been on one-year contracts for a few years now so I’m fortunate to get a two-year deal. It’s an organization going in the right direction and it made my decision very easy to want to be a part of that.”
Franson’s cap hit of $3.325 million makes him No. 3 among Sabres defensemen behind Zach Bogosian ($5.142 million) and Josh Gorges ($3.9 million). According to Sportsnet, Franson will make $3 million this year with a $1 million signing bonus while getting a $2 million salary and $650,000 bonus in 2016-17.
Franson felt he was miscast in Nashville after the Predators, who originally drafted him in 2005, traded a first-round pick to Toronto to reacquire him last March.
“They’re a great organization, great city, great fans and great place to play but unfortunately it wasn’t a good fit this time around,” Franson said. “They brought me in already having three kind of guys to work the right side and play the power play and that’s one of the things I try to take a lot of pride in. I went from playing an important role in Toronto to more of a depth role in Nashville and it was a big adjustment.”
The Sabres can instantly install Franson on the back end of their top power play unit and the right-handed shot should be able to play on his natural side.
“He’s a skill defenseman, obviously a big body,” General Manager Tim Murray said of the 6-foot-5, 213-pounder. “We know he’s not a crasher and banger and that’s not what we signed him for. But he’s got some range, he’s got a long reach. It does take some space to get by him.”
Murray said he liked the thought of utilizing matchups with Franson during home games when the team gets the last change, especially based on quality of competition and offensive-zone faceoffs. He also said he likes Franson’s puck-moving ability and his precision passing, an area where the Sabres have definitely lacked in recent seasons.
“A big thing is when you see an Evander Kane going down the left side at full speed, I’d rather he get the puck on his stick versus having to stop and take the puck off the glass with his glove,” Murray said. “Then he has to restart again and the play is dead. I think Cody is the type of guy who can really pass the puck.”
The Sabres’ depth chart of defense heading into camp now has a clearly defined top four in Rasmus Ristolainen, Bogosian, Gorges and Franson. Mark Pysyk is likely going to be set on the third pair, leaving Mike Weber and newly signed Carlo Colaiacovo the best bets for spots 6-7. Prospects Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel as well as newcomers Matt Donovan and Bobby Sanguinetti will also be in that battle.
Franson, remember, was nearly traded last summer from Toronto to Montreal for Gorges, but Gorges nixed the deal and became a folk hero of sorts in Buffalo for spurning the Leafs and coming here. The pair were neighbors in Kelowna, B.C., when that trade talk was percolating and Gorges recently told Franson he’s excited about the Sabres’ rebuilding program.
“I was renting a house right beside him while mine was getting built,” Franson recalled. “We had a chat in the morning. He obviously chose to come here and now we’re getting the chance to play together. We’re very excited about it. I can’t wait to get this going.”
Franson said it will be particularly interesting to be a part of the Buffalo-Toronto rivalry from the opposite side after playing parts of four seasons in Toronto.
Said Franson of the Leafs: “It’s going to be fun to go in there and try to take two points off those guys every time.”