There’s no denying that Cody Franson is a bit of a unique mix for an NHL defenceman.
He’s big – huge, even, at 6 foot 5 and 215 pounds – but not much of a hitter, never takes penalties and has yet to have a fight in 217 regular-season games.
All of the tools the Toronto Maple Leafs blueliner does have, meanwhile, aren’t normally those associated with a big man, from the pinpoint passes he fires up the neutral zone to the hard, accurate half-a-backswing shots that always seem to generate rebounds.
“He’s got a wrist shot that’s as hard as a lot of people’s slap shot,” coach Randy Carlyle said.
Perhaps it’s that one-of-a-kind combination that got Franson in a tough spot in his first year with the Leafs last season, when he fell out of favour with former coach Ron Wilson and was often relegated to the press box despite his obvious offensive talents.
But after sitting out three of the first five games this season, Franson has finally found a great fit with his new team, pairing with journeyman Mark Fraser to form a third unit that has been the least of Toronto’s problems all year.
The pair have played nearly 80 per cent of their ice time alongside one another and have surprisingly combined for the highest plus-minus (plus-25) of any twosome in the league.
Part of that is due to Franson hitting the scoresheet again and again, with 13 points in 19 games to put him in the top 10 in scoring for defencemen leaguewide.
“It just happened for us naturally,” Franson said of his chemistry with Fraser, who will face his former team in the New Jersey Devils on Monday. “He’s a guy who I feel like I’ve played with the last five years. We’re a really good counterpart for each other.”
“When I can just put the puck in his hands, it makes my job very easy, really,” Fraser said, adding that while he’s often been paired with offensive partners, none have been close to Franson’s size. “We’ve just gelled really well.”
The two big men on the back end have begun to gain Carlyle’s confidence in more situations of late, too.
After averaging only 14 minutes a night in his first eight games, Franson is up to more than 18 in his last 11, a span during which he has eight assists and has taken on a role on the first power play unit.
Fraser’s ice time has also increased, mainly as a result of playing more of a role on a shorthanded unit that has had a 90-per-cent kill rate the last 12 games.
The pairing’s success has come in relatively easy minutes to date, with Carlyle putting Fraser-Franson on the ice often with centre Nazem Kadri’s line and against other teams’ third and fourth lines.
Their overwhelming success in that role and the chemistry they’ve developed, however, has their coach contemplating upping their workload.
“They’ve both been physical and they’ve played safe minutes,” Carlyle said. “The easy part is for them to go out and continue to do that. The hard part is the opposition that they’re going to play against is going to get tougher.”
As for Franson’s distinctive shot that is beginning to get more and more attention from forwards charging the point, there are a few secrets behind its success.
One is that he customized his stick to pull it off without a big windup in junior hockey with then-Vancouver Giants assistant coach Craig Bonner, who would set up an obstacle course of pylons and chairs for Franson to shoot around.
The other is that he is nearly a scratch golfer that can belt the ball a mile and plays regularly in the off-season in Kelowna. Some of the technique in his golf swing has translated well to hockey – and vice-versa.
“It works with your hand-eye co-ordination and being able to time things properly,” Franson explained. “With a golf swing, everything’s so delicate; if your timing’s off a hair, you’re going to pull it left or shank it right.
“You learn for one-timers and stuff like that where to come down behind the puck like you would a ball and timing it that way. I think it has helped for sure.”