It doesn’t show in the win column, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a better club defensively since Randy Carlyle’s dismissal in early January.
Unfortunately, one of the Maple Leafs’ most consistent players this year, defenceman Cody Franson, appears to be the odd man out in the club’s long-term financial plans. With new contracts due for restricted free agents Jonathan Bernier and Nazem Kadri, finding the cash to reach a deal with Franson seems unlikely.
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The Maple Leafs are flush up against the salary cap, and reports of Franson turning down a multi-year deal worth $4.6 million annually have the writing on the wall. Franson is almost certain to be moved by the March 2 trade deadline unless Brendan Shanahan & Co. have a cap-space-clearing blockbuster up their sleeves.
Here is a look at five potential destinations for the impending unrestricted free agent should the Maple Leafs look to trade him.
A lot would have to go right for the Dallas Stars to make a legit run at one of the Central Division playoff spots, but a wild-card berth remains within striking distance.
The Stars defence has improved over the course of the season with the emergence of John Klingberg and the arrival of Jason Demers from San Jose via trade. Still, they could use a veteran top-four guy to help solidify the back end. Franson could fit the bill.
Franson is a puck-moving type who can handle big minutes and potentially slot in on the Stars' top pairing. The question for the Stars is, how much would they be willing to give up for what could amount to a rental? A puncher's chance at the post-season might not be worth one of the Stars' top prospects or even one of the numerous defensive prospects in the system.
Potential trade chips: Jason Dickinson, Radek Faksa, Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth, Brenden Ranford, Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Kings were linked to the Maple Leafs in a rumoured deal that involved swapping Mike Richards for Dion Phaneuf. It turns out jettisoning Richards' contract and absorbing Phaneuf's just wouldn't make sense for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Franson represents a cheaper option -- at least for the remainder of this season -- for the Kings.
Franson on an expiring deal might not be enough to allow the Maple Leafs to pluck a young forward like Tanner Pearson away from the Kings, but there may be a near-NHL-ready option waiting for an opportunity in AHL Manchester who could play catalyst for a deal.
Potential trade chips: Nick Ebert, Derek Forbort, Adrian Kempe, Michael Mersch, Pearson
If the Ducks are going to avoid another poor playoff showing this spring, an upgrade on the blue line might be a significant step in the right direction.
The Ducks currently have the cap space to think long-term with a player like Franson. He would instantly provide a boost to the Ducks mediocre power play and could potentially take a spot on the club's top pairing alongside Cam Fowler.
Potential trade chips: Nicolas Kerdiles, Rickard Rakell, Nick Ritchie, Devante Smith-Pelly, Nick Sorensen
DETROIT RED WINGS
The Red Wings are light on cap space, but they might make the most sense as a potential rental destination for Franson. Of course, the Maple Leafs will be looking to maximize the return on the 6-foot-5 defenceman, so the addition of Franson to an already deep Red Wings team may be little more than wishcasting for Detroit fans.
The Red Wings have a few impressive young players already in the NHL and more coming down the pipeline. Perhaps there's a deal to be made with multiple parts involved and Franson serving as the centrepiece.
Potential trade chips: Tomas Jurco, Dylan Larkin, Xaveir Ouellet, Teemu Pulkkinen, Ryan Sproul
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Sharks are a team so loaded with top-end talent, they can afford to play with some apparent shortcomings through much of the regular season. They'll need to be better if this is the year to shake off post-season disappointment.
Franson could be the remedy for the deficiencies of a lumbering type like Scott Hannan on the blue line.
Defenceman Mirco Mueller would be off-limits, but that still leaves a plethora of NHL-proven talent and prospects who could help the Sharks shore up its defence corps with a player of Franson's ilk.
Potential trade chips: Gabryel Boudreau, Taylor Doherty, Nikolay Goldobin, Matthew Nieto, Matt Tennyson, Chris Tierney