Before Cody Franson could get to the typical offseason goals – stronger, faster, etc. – he had to focus on his eyes. They couldn’t focus.
His brain wouldn’t let them.
Franson left the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup in February after getting boarded by Columbus’ Scott Hartnell. Franson’s head hit the glass hard, and the initial diagnosis was a concussion. Eventually, it was determined the defenseman had a vestibular disorder, which involves the parts of the inner ear and brain that control balance and eye movements.
Franson was fine while sitting still. As soon as he’d move his head, trouble started.
“Every time I’d turn I’d get lightheaded because my left eye was tracking a little slower than the right, so it was a very odd, very odd injury and tough to rehab,” Franson said in HarborCenter. “My rehab basically consisted of trying to retrain the muscles in my left eye to kind of speed back up with the way my right was going.”
In order to get back to normal, Franson needed to strap on special goggles and work with specialists.
“It was a lot of tracking drills and stuff with eye goggles on, trying to work on deception and things like that,” Franson said. “Until you actually got the goggles on, you couldn’t really feel your eye muscles doing much.”
He wasn’t able to start skating again until July.
“It was frustrating,” Franson said. “A lot of people asked me, ‘How ya doing?’ and it’s tough to really give them a good answer because you’re trying to train the muscles in your eye and that’s not easy to do. Once I got into visual therapy, it was easy to feel the rehab making progress, and it was actually able to give me statistical data to tell me how I was doing.
“It was an interesting injury, but it’s behind me. Everything is good and I’m healthy.”
With his vision back, Franson set his sights on turning around his game. That needed work, too.
The 29-year-old struggled after signing a two-year, $6.65 million contract with the Sabres. He finished with the lowest offensive output of his seven-year career – four goals and 13 assists in 59 games – and he failed to fit in on the blue line. He started off fine, putting up two goals and nine points in the opening 18 games, but returns from injury by Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian put Franson in a diminished role.
“The first 20 games Bogo was hurt last year, so I was playing a role I was comfortable with,” Franson said. “When he came back, things changed a little bit, so I had to adapt to a different role. I struggled with it last year trying to play in that lower-minute range. I pride myself on being a power-play guy, and I wasn’t on it at the end of the year.”
He’ll need to earn his way back to the power play this year. Bogosian, unsigned Rasmus Ristolainen and trade-acquisition Dmitry Kulikov figure to get plenty of looks.
“He needed to have a good summer,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Franson. “He needed to get cleared, get fresh and then have a good summer working out. He came back with a little bit different body composition. He’s a little leaner. He’s moving better as a result of the summer he had, and it’s just got to translate to his play on the ice.”
Franson, who has career highs of eight goals and 28 assists, is determined to get back into prime offensive situations.
“I’m taking it very seriously right now trying to re-establish myself in this lineup and make it tough on the coaches to not play me,” Franson said. “I knew this was going to be a big year for me, and in order to have a big year I had to come in here and prove my worth in camp and try and give myself the best chance to put my right foot forward out of the gate.”
One of the changes made by Franson has nothing to do with enhanced mobility or more explosive acceleration. He’s swapped No. 46 for No. 6, which came open with the departure of defenseman Mike Weber.
“I wore 6 all through juniors and while I was in the American League,” he said. “It was my favorite number to wear. When I came up to Nashville I had to switch to 4 because Shea Weber was wearing 6, so I’ve worn 4 pretty much everywhere I’ve went since then.
“Forty-six was really all that I had to choose from when I got here last year, and I wasn’t a fan of the number. It went along with probably the worst year of my career, so when 6 came available it was an easy choice to get out of that number.”