Cody Franson has developed into one of the more important defensemen for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The former third-round pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2005 NHL draft is on the cusp of a very large payday given his improving play and current contract situation.
The 6'5" native of Salmon Arm, British Columbia is playing with a one-year contract worth $2 million and is due to be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season.
The Maple Leafs have a number of questions surrounding their defense with current No. 1 defenseman and captain Dion Phaneuf also due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year.
Young Morgan Rielly has impressed most observers, and the smooth-skating defender has all the tools to be a dominant player in the coming seasons.
While Jake Gardiner seemed to be poised to become a key component of the defense core, he has not received the ice time that lends one to believe that Randy Carlyle sees him as a top-two defender, at least for the time being. He's averaged under 20 minutes per game and has had the fifth-most minutes of Leaf defensemen this season.
General manager Dave Nonis seems content to see how things play out, and there can be no doubt that Cody Franson is a focus for the Leafs' management team. The question is, does he have what it takes to be a No. 1 D-man?
Franson was identified by one of the shrewdest scouting staffs in the NHL, the Nashville Predators, a club that has selected Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones at past drafts. This is excellent company that certainly speaks to Franson's fine hockey pedigree.
Franson can certainly play an all-around game. He has developed into one of the NHL's best hitters. He doesn't hit recklessly, but he uses his big body to separate offensive players from the puck. This also creates additional space for himself in both the neutral and defensive zones. Franson is one of the top hitters among defensemen with 29 hits, ranking him third overall this season.
The best defenders in today's game tend to be shot-blockers. Franson continues to develop this skill and has blocked 19 shots so far this season. This puts him ahead of some other elite defenders, including Niklas Kronwall and former teammate Shea Weber.
Another key metric, used increasingly to gauge a player's effectiveness, is his relative Corsi number. Basically, this stat is used to measure a player's on-ice performance versus his team's performance when he is on the bench. The Corsi measures shots on net, missed or blocked at both ends of the ice when the player is on the ice.
This year, he is carrying a minus number, but he has been playing tougher minutes, and the Leafs have been outshot by wide margins on a few occasions.
Where Franson has really made a leap in the past few seasons is in the offensive zone. Franson has moved into the upper reaches of scoring among defenseman by finishing eighth last season with 29 points during the regular season, and he is currently seventh in scoring with seven points in first nine games of the 2013-14 season.
Finally, No. 1 defensemen must be able to log a lot of minutes. This is a little more difficult to measure since the Leafs have a top defender in Dion Phaneuf, who is one of the league's best minute-eaters.
Franson can make a strong claim here. He averaged just 18:47 minutes of ice time last season but has transitioned well this year to a much heavier workload. He has increased this to 21:49 minutes of ice time, and his overall play, while still improving, has certainly not regressed.
It is normally difficult to test drive a No. 1 defenseman until you actually draft, sign or trade for him, but the Leafs have that opportunity to do so this season with Franson already being in the fold. Most of the key indicators point to Franson being able to be a very good No. 1 D-man for the Leafs in the future.
All stats are from nhl.com unless otherwise noted.