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Sabres Notebook: Franson parlays PTO deal to Hawks' first pair

CHICAGO -- Cody Franson was quite a scapegoat at times last season as the Buffalo Sabres' defense corps struggled. The Sabres didn't re-sign Franson after the season and no one in the NHL bit all summer. The 30-year-old was left to sign a professional tryout offer in September.

Lo and behold, Franson made the Chicago Blackhawks and was given a one-year deal for $1 million. And when he saw his old team for the first time Friday night, Franson was playing on Chicago's top defensive pair alongside future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith.

"It's not a comfortable feeling after playing many contracts out in other types of status and then going into the summer that way," Franson said in United Center. "I thought I could do well here and carve a role out and it's been growing into that."

Franson entered Friday's game with one goal and six assists in 18 games. He had been a healthy scratch for nine of the first 11 games this season but has seen regular ice time since thanks to injuries and coach Joel Quenneville's lineup tinkering. He played only 8:48 Friday, leaving with an upper-body injury after one shift of the third period. He was injured in the second period. The Hawks list him as day to day.

Franson entered the game averaging 17 minutes, 37 second per game, with a season-high of 22:06 and eight games over 18 minutes. Once he cracked the lineup and got more familiar with the Hawks' plan, Franson's reward was a slot next to Keith.

"At first I didn't see it coming so I was a little surprised at first but I'm really excited," he said. "You get a chance to play with 'Duncs' and it's a big opportunity and I'm doing what I can to make sure it stays that way. I find him very easy to play with and I try to do not too much out of the ordinary. I pick my spots carefully when to jump up."

"I really like playing with him," Keith said last month. "We both kind of read the game in similar ways and try to use our brain to see the ice and make plays out of the zone."

Franson is one of those players analytics lovers want on their team. And he's adding to that fodder by leading the Hawks this season with a 57 percent Corsi rating.

"Any time you're in an organization where you lose that many games there will be fingers pointed," Franson said. "In Buffalo, it was pointed at our defense group along other things. In situations like that, it's tough not to have people view you in a different light. The good hockey you play gets overlooked due to the bigger picture. I thought I played a lot of good hockey and the numbers didn't show it, so I ended up having the summer I had to go through."

Even though the Hawks entered Friday on a five-game losing streak, Franson said the change in attitude from his days in Buffalo is clear.

"No matter how the loss comes, whether it's in regulation, overtime, whatever, nobody is happy with one point here," he said. "It's two points or nothing with this group and that's a lot of fun to be a part of. Expectations are high and you strive to meet those. There's no panic in here. It's a matter of going out and executing and trying to string something together."

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Franson was signed to a two-year, $6.6 million deal by Tim Murray in 2015. He said he was stunned to learn Murray was fired as general manager in April shortly after last season ended.

"That was a big of a surprise that happened pretty quickly. It's always tough when you clean house like that," he said. "It's like you start from scratch all over again. When we changed coaches in Toronto from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle, it was like that. It's a big change for the group.

"Everybody is at camp again. You've got to go out and try to make a first impression and hope the guy coming in likes what you're doing. It's not easy on a group of guys but you do the best you can and hopefully they'll find some success. ... They're a group still trying to figure out an identity and find a way, just like when I was there."

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The Blackhawks entered Friday one point out of the playoff picture. What's been wrong? Sabres coach Phil Housley knows them very well from his years in Nashville, culminating in the Predators' stunning four-game sweep of the Hawks in the first round of last year's playoffs. And he thinks the loss of Marian Hossa is a major subtraction.

Hossa is out for the year, and probably headed for retirement, due to progressive skin disorder. He had 26 goals for the Hawks last year, 186 in his eight seasons with them as he won three Stanley Cups and 525 in a five-team career that dated to 1998.

"You lose a piece like Marian Hossa and that's a big part of their team," Housley said. "He was the guy who sort of drove the bus and really put everybody on the right seat. If you lose a leader like that who works at both ends of the rink, it's a big piece that they miss. I think it's showing right now."

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Sabres winger Kyle Okposo took the morning skate off but played in the game. He's believed to be nursing some sort of hand injury. At the end of a drill in practice Thursday, players had to do pushups but Housley offered Okposo the option to do situps instead. Okposo declined and pushed through to do the exercises.

Zemgus Girgensons and Josh Gorges remained the healthy scratches for the second straight game as Housley made no changes from the lineup that broke the team's four-game losing streak Tuesday in Colorado. Nathan Beaulieu (flu) remains back in Buffalo.

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