Johnston: Leafs’ Franson might just head to Europe

September 20, 2013, 8:14 PM

TORONTO – Since opening training camp last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs have acted like they’re moving on without Cody Franson. And now the 26-year-old defenceman is starting to wonder if he needs to do the same thing.

As a restricted free agent, Franson’s options in North America are extremely limited while his contract impasse with the Leafs continues. Offer sheets are rarely used in the NHL these days and not very many teams currently have the cap space to consider one anyway. However, there is nothing stopping Franson from seeking employment in Europe—just as he did during last year’s NHL lockout—and he acknowledged Friday that the possibility has already crossed his mind. “I haven’t explored (overseas options) but I know that’s definitely something I might have to consider,” Franson told sportsnet.ca. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but it’s not like I haven’t been over there before.”

The mere fact he would say that is a reflection of how poorly negotiations are going. The Leafs two-year offer is believed to be worth a little more than $5-million, but Franson would prefer to sign for one so that he can pursue a raise next summer when the salary cap goes back up. For their part, the Leafs are within about $3 million of the $64.3-million salary cap and have virtually no financial flexibility. As of late Friday afternoon, GM Dave Nonis said there was “nothing new” to report on the talks.

The process is clearly taking a toll on Franson. Coming off his best NHL season, he would much rather be enduring the rigors of training camp with his Toronto teammates than practising with the Ryerson University men’s hockey team. Further complicating matters is the fact he went through a similarly difficult negotiation with the Leafs last year. Given that history, it seems Franson is starting to question how the team feels about him as a player. While acknowledging that contract disputes are part of the business, he noted that “it’s tough not to” take the situation personally.

And with time ticking down towards the start of the season, both sides have dug in their heels—Franson wants to get paid and the Leafs want to get him at a good price and not have to do this for a third year in a row.

Out at the Leafs practice facility, his name has barely been mentioned since training camp opened. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the prevailing attitude. “Contractually he doesn’t have an agreement in place,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after Friday’s practice. “As a coach, he doesn’t even become part of your thought process. It’s a cruel thing to say, but you move on without people.”

Franson was a big offensive contributor during the shortened 2013 campaign. His 29 points were fourth best on the team and placed him sixth overall among NHL defencemen. In fact, he was the only player inside the top-40 in scoring among blueliners who averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game.

Interestingly, Franson attributes some of the success for his breakout season to the 26 games he played with Brynas in the Swedish Elite league during the lockout. While there, he logged huge minutes and learned not to play on “pins and needles as much.”

To some degree, the situation is hanging over the players in the team’s dressing room—both those anxious to take Franson’s spot in the lineup and others who would like to see him walk through the door again. “I know he’s a little frustrated; so is everybody because we just want him to be here,” said centre Nazem Kadri, who signed his own contract on the eve of training camp. “We know we’re a better team with him on it.”

The Leafs will have played five of their eight exhibition games by the end of this weekend and the regular season opener Oct. 1 in Montreal isn’t very far off. When Franson decided against taking the Leafs to salary arbitration back in July, he never dreamed that his contract status would remain unresolved in late September and that he would be forced to sit out at least half of training camp. “I honestly didn’t believe it would come to this,” said Franson.

Despite all of the emotions involved in the current situation, Franson made it clear that his top priority is to remain in Toronto. “This is my dream place to play,” he said. “I grew up a Leafs fan. We’ve got a lot of unfinished business as a team and I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. It’s obviously something I want to be a part of and hopefully the current situation doesn’t take too long.”

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