On Franson, Leafs, Trades, Drafting and “Proper” Rebuilds

Cody Franson
Cody Franson (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

On Sunday morning, the Leafs traded the soon to be UFAs Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to the Nashville Predators in exchange for a first round pick, Brendan Leipsic and Olli Jokinen.

This trade is hard to evaluate and cannot be done in a vacuum:

On one hand, it’s an absolute disgrace. How the Leafs ended up here with a roster that contains seven top picks and a goalie picked eleventh should be a red-flag to people who think the draft is the only way to get things done. The Leafs have talent – the reason they are a bad team is that their management has been terrible at asset management (Grabovski, MacArthur, Kulemin, Franson, Stralman, Stalberg….I could go on, how much time do you have?) and they have mismanaged their salary-cap.  (I decided to go on after-all: trading for Bernier unnecessarily, Tim Gleeson, singing JM Liles in the first place, the  Lupul extension, the Bozak extension, blowing money on UFAs they didn’t need instead of finding value in Entry Level Contracts…..I can keep going…but  you get the point).

In fact, the idea that there is only one way to rebuild is silly  bordering on stupid. Drafting high is always good, but you also need to make smart signings and good trades. You need to be able to recognize value. You need to draft smartly – that means making a lot of picks and playing the odds (the Leafs almost never pick in the second round) and making intelligent decisions regarding player extensions and trades.

Losing players for nothing is unacceptable and one of the reasons – if not the main reason – the Leafs are currently where they are.  Again, if you think just drafting high is how you build a team, consider that teh Leafs HAVE EIGHT TOP-TEN PICKS IN THEIR SYSTEM.  Whether or not the Leafs personally drafted these players is irrelevant – outside of the kessel trade most of them were acquired in fairly lopsided trades.  It’s not these players who are the problem, it’s the consistent stupidity of management to seemingly sandbag every asset they have, to fail to add to what they have in any meaningful way or to make decisions that resemble what other smart and successful organizations do (Joe Colborne, Carl Gunnarson, trading for and attempting to re-sign David Bolland, not locking up Franson two or three years ago…I hope you’re getting the point).

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And this isn’t hindsight either – there were tons of people mocking these moves the day they all happened – that’s actually what makes it so frustrating. People writing about this team ripped nearly all of these moves the day they happened, so it’s not like it took some kind of perplexing level of genius to recognize singing Clarkson was stupid or that paying Bozak to stay and Grabovski to leave was idiotic on an unparalleled level.

So, before you embrace an Edmonton style rebuild, remember that the Cody Franson saga is the reason the Leafs are garbage and not the fact they haven’t ever “rebuilt properly.”  Unless by “rebuild properly” you mean “let the team be run by someone who isn’t an idiot.”  And, you almost have to go back to the first Cliff Fletcher era to find that.  I liked Burke, but his record does not stand up to scrutiny. Pat Quinn has the advantage of being able to New York Yankee his way out of trouble and still never gave Sundin a partner in crime.  Etc. Etc. Etc.

No, it’s not drafting. It’s Cody Fransoning that kills this team.  To wit: You acquire a massively sized, puck moving defensemen for a song, proceed to develop him into a top pairing defensemen and the net result is that you’re pretty happy getting a late first rounder and a B-level prospect for him.

If that doesn’t epitomize what the Leafs are all about, I don’t know what does.

Dave Nonis – if he wasn’t already considered to be a lame-duck and universally derided as a horrible GM – should be fired just for this alone. A professional hockey team should have been able to identify the talent of Cody Franson three years ago and signed him to a long term contract that would provide some value.

Instead, the Leafs played hard-ball with a guy who grew up cheering for the Leafs, whose life goal was to play here. They signed him to a series of one-year deals and failed to buy-out any of his UFA years.  It wouldn’t have taken a genius to offer him a seven year $28 million dollar deal back when he was first acquired and bank on him developing while also banking on $4 million being a steal a couple years down the road. Teams do this all the time; just not usually the Leafs (although their Gardiner contract was a good example of what I’m talking about here: credit where it’s due).

So, in reality, this trade is garbage – just another example of how shitty the Leafs management has been and how consistently horrible nearly all their decisions have been. Embrace the rebuild? How about embracing common sense, planning, asset management, the concept of value, game theory, statistical analysis and problem solving? 

How about you firing the scouting department and GM who drafted Biggs, Gauthier and Finn?

As for the the actual trade itself, here’s my vacuum analysis: Anything you get for two UFAs you’re going to lose anyways is always good. Adding extra draft picks is good and by my analysis the Leafs farm system is so bad that after Nylander, Leipsic is scarily close to being the next best forward prospect.  There is also value in starting the trading two weeks earlier than the deadline, since it makes the team less competitive and makes their own first rounder likely to be higher. There is significant cap savings, assuming the team replaces the two outgoing players with rookies.


But, regardless of the trade itself being good, I can’t look past the fact the Leafs traded their best defensemen for nothing because they were too stupid to foresee his development and sign him to a long-term contract at a reasonable cap hit when it could have easily been done.  “Hey there is a 6’5 220 lbs puck-moving defenseman, those are easy to get, let’s play hardball with him until he backs us into a corner and we can’t afford to pay him what he’s worth on the open market.”

How many times do NHL teams need to watch this same scenario unfold before they realize that you should never let a player put you in a situation where you have to pay market value for his prime years?

The best thing the Leafs can take out of this situation is not the return, but the lesson: it’s not draft picks or collecting talent that “builds” an NHL team: it’s asset management and the ability to find value.

Some of the best players in the NHLare not top draft picks: Bergeron, Kopitar, Girioux, Weber, Datsyk and tons more. Drafting is only part of the game. Of course you want to draft high and play the odds, but building a consistently competitive team requires way more of the other things I’ve been talking about. You can’t bank on getting Crosby/Malkin, Ovechkin/Backstrom or Toews/Kane with your high picks – ask the Panthers or Oilers how that strategy works. I would wager that “building through the draft,” is just an easy answer to a complex question, that “proper rebuild” is a meaningless catch-phrase.

If the team wants to “tear it down” that’s probably a good thing. But if they don’t start exhibiting a level of managerial competence not seen in these parts for countless years, it will just be more of the same.

No, its not drafting that kills the Leafs. It’s Cody-Fransoning that does it. Joe-Colbourning and Grabovskiing. You don’t build a team through the draft, you build it anyway you can – you just have to manage your assets in a way that suggests your know what you’re doing.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “On Franson, Leafs, Trades, Drafting and “Proper” Rebuilds”

  1. You state that your analysis is not in retrospect, yet it clearly reeks of hind sight analysis. We now have Shanny to right this ship and he has not been President for a full calendar year as of yet. I may agree with the draft not being the end all solution to rebuild, but you seem to forget that this years draft pool is loaded with talent that has not been seen for awhile. It would be foolish not to take advantage of such a talented pool with as many first round picks as they can garner. We now have a better scouting staff in place and can choose more blue chip prospects like we did with Morgan Rielly…

  2. These pieces are so amusing to read now. Last week you wrote about how the Leafs’ prospect “cupboard” was full and impressive and a few days later you’re tearing down guys like Gauthier and Finn? Well, which one is it?
    Gauthier (if developed well) *should* become a bottom-six centreman who is good on faceoffs, shutting down opponents, useful on the PK and physically-imposing. It doesn’t mean that he’s useless or that the scouting department of management messed up – a lot of the time, a bottom-six forward or a top-six defenceman is a player the organization should be happy with. It’s not like you find thirty goal-scorers or two-four defencemen very frequently that late in a draft. The problem is some Leaf fans (I won’t name names), having unrealistic expectations of a player drafted 20th or later. It’s wrong to rag on guys like Gauthier and Finn – if the Leafs don’t rush them and craft their rebuild well, these two will probably be decent contributors.
    As far as re-signing Franson, I don’t see how or why anyone would advocate for this guy to be in line for a seven-year extension. His career-high for points is 33 and while he stands to surpass that this season, I don’t see how anyone can seriously justify paying him a bounty and committing to him for seven years based on his role as a top-four guy.
    Time isn’t on the Leafs side and it won’t be for a while. Nonis likely waited for offers to come in and this was probably the best one that he heard. I’m sure that there was substantial interest in Franson, but whereas the Leafs NEED to deal him before or at the deadline, teams don’t HAVE TO acquire him. The first-rounder and Leipsic is probably the best offer that came Nonis way. A risk on his part would have been to have waited too long – to the point that the Preds trade for Petry or another defenceman. I sure as hell won’t defend Nonis for much, but at least he’s trying to do right now. A first-rounder in such a deep draft is valuable even if it’s 25th or later. If the Leafs are able to land another pick in the middle of the first round, that puts them in a decent spot to combine their two later picks and move up, or even acquire a very good prospect at a position they need.

  3. Generally good article but I am somewhat perplexed as to why you would slag a young prospect like Matt Finn.
    This is his first year as a pro were you expecting something more from a 20 year old kid?
    Just to remind you of his pedigree:
    Captains award as the OHL’s best captain last year.
    2nd highest scoring defenseman in the OHL last year.
    Best plus minus numbers in the OHL last year.
    Led his team to one win short of the Memorial cup.

    His background seems to be exactly what the organization lacks,


  4. With all the top picks the Leafs have, it actually is very important that they weren’t drafted by Toronto. Teams don’t typically give away top players so when they are being moved, unless they’re getting a fortune in return, that means that the teams have determined that they aren’t that important. If they were extremely good players, Toronto would have never been able to acquire them. It’s more that they’re top 10 players who never turned out the way that teams were hoping when they were drafted. It’s very relevant who drafted them. Most of the top 10 picks the Leafs have are cast-offs. Not every top pick is going to be a hit but many are.

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