Cody Franson And The Value Of Late Free Agent Signings

Somewhere out there, Cody Franson is sitting with a telephone nearby, waiting patiently.

Heading into this summer Franson was considered one of, if not the biggest, catches of the 2015 free agent class. Yet, it’s been nearly two months since the free agent markets opened up on July 1st, and Franson still remains unsigned.

It’s certainly not because he isn’t a good hockey player. The 28 year-old defenseman put up 36 points in 78 games last season, split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators. His impressive 6’5″ frame makes him appealing to the more old-school, traditional-minded NHL executives that heavily value players with size, while his great advanced metrics should make him a prime target for those teams that have already delved deep into the league’s newfound fondness for analytics.

Put Franson on most teams in the NHL right now and he’d be a solid Top 4 defenseman. On a few of those he’d probably jump right to the top pairing.

No, Franson’s lack of a contract right now isn’t because of what he can do on the ice. It’s because of the price tag attached to him off of it.

Earlier this summer it was rumored that Franson was seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million annually. Additionally, after three consecutive one-year contracts leading up to this point, he is now looking for a deal with a longer term.

“It’s just one of those things that some of the teams that we’re talking to are in cap crunches and some teams don’t want to go as long,” said Franson on TSN 1040, as reported by The Hockey News. “A number of different circumstances. This year has just been a lot slower in general.”

Now, you can’t really blame Franson for any of this. He’s a very good hockey player that’s simply trying to find a deal that’s market value for his abilities, comparing himself to what other similar defensemen are making.

However, it’s looking more and more likely that Franson will have to settle for a new contract that’s less than his market value…which will be much to the benefit of whatever patient NHL organization finally signs him.

As the NHL has become increasingly adjusted to life with a salary cap we’re likewise seeing an increase in the number of stories like Franson’s: good, and sometimes great, older players being forced to settle for less – in terms of either dollars, contract length, or both – because teams are limited by salary cap restrictions, as well the related necessity of keeping roster spots open for younger, cheaper players.

A month ago it was reported that the Franson was in contract discussions with a few teams, with the Boston Bruins being one of them. The Bruins, having traded away a Top 4, right-shooting defender in Dougie Hamilton earlier this summer, would certainly love to bring in a similar player, such as Franson. The problem is that the Bruins have somewhere around $4 million in available cap space right now, meaning that they probably won’t be willing to pay what Franson is asking for.

Similarly, there are plenty of teams out there that have the cap space to sign Franson, but many of them probably don’t have the roster room to do so. The Arizona Coyotes, as one example, are rife with cap space, well over $10 million, but with a number of young defensemen – Michael Stone, Brandon Gormley, Klas Dahlbeck and Connor Murphy – all competing for a spot on the big club, it doesn’t really make sense to sign Franson since the Coyotes are rebuilding and envision those young defenders as important pieces of the team’s future.

With such tight restraints on the market it becomes inevitable that veteran players are signing bargain-basement deals. The winners in this scenario, of course, are the teams.

On Sunday it was reported that defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had signed a one-year, $1.5 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Kings, a huge drop in salary compared to the one-year, $4 million dollar contract that he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer. Ehrhoff is 33 and coming off of an injury-shortened season, but there’s no question that this is still an absolute steal for the Kings to sign a player of his caliber for such a low cap hit and term.

When looking at all of this from a wider perspective it seems strange that more teams don’t purposefully wait until later in the summer to fill out their rosters, saving tons of money and roster flexibility compared to jumping into the free agent market right as it began. A hypothetical trio of Sean Bergenheim, Matt Cullen and Mike Santorelli, all free agents this summer, would form one of the best 4th lines in the entire NHL, and a proactive team probably could have signed all three to one-year deals and at a combined cap hit of $3 million or less.

With a number of quality free agents still available don’t be surprised if we all step back a few months from now, once the next NHL season is well underway, and marvel at how some teams found incredible value out of this summer’s free agent class.