“From our standpoint, we have enough cap space in our minds to get both players signed and that’s what we intend to do.”
That’s a quote from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis in an August 16 interview and the players in question are defenseman Cody Franson and forward Nazem Kadri. Franson and Kadri are the remaining restricted free agents on the Toronto roster. In the minds of many, they are also key parts of a young, developing team that should be retained.
Nonis has been active this off-season, consummating major trades to acquire Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland, buying out some contracts, notably Mikhail Grabovski, and signing a number of free agents such as David Clarkson. According to Cap Geek, Toronto has 21 of 23 roster spots filled and have left themselves slightly less than $5 million in cap space. Is that enough room to get Franson and Kadri under contract?
The optimist would say it should be.
Kadri, 22, is coming off a 3-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $1.72 million, though about half of that AAV was in the form of bonuses. Franson, 26, had a 1-year deal that paid him $1.2 million with no bonuses. With over $4.8 million in cap space remaining, Nonis could give each a healthy raise in the form of guaranteed contracts that pay say $2 million on average per year. For Kadri, that’s almost a 150% increase of his $810,000 2013 salary; Franson would see a 67% raise. Seems fairly simple, yet the picture is far from black-and-white.
In a lockout-shortened season, Kadri was the team’s second-highest scorer and established himself as the second line centre. Comparing him to his draft class, his 44 points in 2012-13 put him 4 behind John Tavares (AAV $5.5 million), a point ahead of Matt Duchene (AAV $3.5 million) and 11 points ahead of Evander Kane (AAV $5.25 million). Yet each of those players have played a minimum of 260 NHL games compared to Kadri’s 99 and have at least 150 points compared to Kadri’s career total of 63.
As Chris Johnston of Sportsnet wrote, it’s difficult to find the right comparables to Kadri and, while the player favours a long-term deal, a bridge deal of 2 years could be the answer. Will Kadri be happy with something shorter, or will he feel like he is being asked to prove himself yet again?
It seems nothing is easy where Kadri is concerned. Then-GM Brian Burke made a lot of noise about trading up at the 2009 draft, then didn’t and selected Kadri in the 7 slot. Since then, it’s been questions about his development, his size, his ability, whether he was ready, whether former coach Ron Wilson had confidence in him, his conditioning… and divisions among Leaf fans and the media as to whether Kadri would ever develop from first-round selection to useful, perhaps very good, Maple Leaf player.
Cody Franson was the team’s highest-scoring defenceman (4th on the team, 8th in the NHL) despite playing fewer than 19 minutes per game, ranking him 5th among Leaf defenders in ice time.
He too has had a difficult tenure with Toronto. Franson was acquired with Matthew Lombardi from Nashville in exchange for much-maligned Brett Lebda, AHLer Robert Slaney and a conditional 4th-round pick. Most observers felt the Leafs made out like bandits but there seemed to be friction between Ron Wilson and the defenceman right off the bat. Franson had seen only 4 games of action by mid-November 2011, leaving many to wonder why he’d been acquired in the first place.
Here is where things get muddy. Franson isn’t a big, tough blue liner but coach Randy Carlyle began to rely on him more as the season wore on, moving Franson up to his number 3 defenceman.
Franson is not a big-minute muncher. He is not a big hitter. He is capable of putting up points from the blue line and running the power play, and he has some decent size though he’s not overly physical.
Toronto has offensive defencemen who really don’t hit much already. Jake Gardiner isn’t going anywhere while John-Michael Liles’ age and contract make him an unlikely trade piece. Still, Toronto is hardly a team that can afford to ship out good, young NHL defencemen like Franson, despite rumours he might be on the move.
It’s interesting to note that Kadri is a centre and Franson is a defenceman, two positions the Toronto Maple Leafs have long had issues with in terms of depth. With Mikhail Grabovski gone, having Kadri out in a contract dispute could certainly hurt the Maple Leafs’ forward alignment and disrupt the offensive capabilities.
The signings of defenders Mark Fraser, Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger and Korbinian Holzer mean the Leafs have bodies but is the blue line corps better without Franson than with him? After all, Ranger is 3 seasons removed from NHL play and Holzer was deemed out of his depth at the NHL level last season. Further, an unsigned Franson could have the effect of rushing Morgan Rielly or promoting a Stuart Percy or Jesse Blacker regardless of their ability to play at the NHL level.
Dave Nonis needs to tread carefully here. As a team, the Maple Leafs achieved more in 2012-13 than the franchise has in almost a decade. Credit where it’s due, Brian Burke did seem to have a plan in place and he acquired both Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson among others.
Frankly, Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson emerged as important parts of a successful, though short, season. When the off-season began, the Leafs seemed to have tons of cap room. Now there’s just under $5 million to try to sign these 2 young players and maintain some “emergency space.” Nonis could begin the season with just the 12 forwards and 7 defencemen under contract. Strong camps by younger players could displace some of the Leaf veterans to the AHL.
But Nonis will have to find a way to make Kadri and Franson feel like they’re being treated as valuable members of this franchise. These 2 players have already had some turmoil during their time in Toronto, especially Kadri, who has endured some harsh scrutiny by previous management teams and now feels like he has proven his worth.
Depending on how it all plays out – in terms of how these players perform, if they remain Leafs, if the team is successful going forward – Dave Nonis’ ability to sign Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson or acquire something for their rights could have a major effect on the future direction of his tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.