There’s not a whole lot of grey area left between the Toronto Maple Leafs and two of their players on the outs, James Reimer and Cody Franson.
They’re not viewed as key pieces of the franchise’s future – and they know it.
For one, both have been on the trade block all off-season but remain in Leaf limbo awaiting their arbitration dates.
One deal was nixed by Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, who preferred to go to Buffalo rather than be included in a swap for Franson.
The other was nixed by the goalie market, which dried up entirely when 11 unrestricted free agent netminders all found homes on July 1, leaving nowhere for Reimer to go.
Some executives that have tried to swing a deal with the Leafs this summer have come away frustrated and accused them of overvaluing their players, but that’s far from the case with Reimer and Franson.
If anything, they’ve been undervalued, something that has led to the two stalemates after both promptly filed for salary arbitration.
Now 26 years old and one year from unrestricted free agency under a nearly $75-million (U.S.) cap, they know they can simply ride out a final season as a Leaf and look for a bigger payday elsewhere.
Assuming they aren’t dealt before then.
Franson is first up with an arbitration hearing on Monday in Toronto, and as tends to be the case, the two sides are worlds apart in what they’re asking for. NHL arbitration cases have become farcical in that each side, the player and his team – who are backed by the NHLPA and the league, respectively – argues for the highest (or lowest) number it can pull off with a straight face.
Here, that means Franson is seeking a generous one-year payout of $4.2-million; the Leafs have countered with a slightly more ridiculous zero-raise $2-million.
Franson’s agent, Gerry Johannson, has a decent case. He can, for example, point out his client put up 62 points the past two seasons, tied for 20th among all blueliners, which puts him in a group of very well-paid NHL defencemen.
The lawyers representing the Leafs will counter that Franson was only a top-four defenceman on a non-playoff team, that he was last on the club with a minus-20 and that his defensive miscues drove management to drink.
It has the makings of an ugly hearing, one that would only serve to further deteriorate the relationship between player and team that was damaged by Franson’s holdout at training camp a year ago.
The scuttlebutt on the weekend, however, was that they were close enough on a deal that they can come to a compromise in the $3.2-million range right before the hearing takes place, avoiding further nastiness and giving the Leafs a number they can then shop around the league.
(It’s often hard to trade a player with an upcoming arbitration case simply because of the uncertainty involved, but the Leafs feel Franson can be dealt if he’s signed for what amounts to a little more than a league average salary.)
The situation is far less clear with Reimer, who has accepted he will likely be back to start the season in Toronto as Jonathan Bernier’s backup.
With a career .914 save percentage and a winning record with a Leafs team that has struggled mightily defensively in his four seasons, Reimer appears to have a pretty good arbitration case. Arbitrators aren’t typically hockey experts; they won’t be asked to look at video and have to rely on numbers to assess a player’s value.
Reimer’s numbers are pretty solid – or at least in the same conversation of goalies like Steve Mason, Ben Scrivens and even Bernier had before they signed recent contracts.
What could hurt Reimer is that what’s known as the “platform year” – the most recent season before the hearing – is considered by far the most important one to an arbitrator, and his numbers weren’t nearly as strong as two years ago, when he helped lead the Leafs to the postseason.
The tough part is that Reimer believes he can and should be a starter, and the team has made it quite clear he won’t accomplish that in Toronto.
And what a backup makes, generally speaking, pales in comparison to a No. 1.
The biggest positive of the NHL’s arbitration process is that it generally forces compromise in these situations. The hearings almost never take place, feelings aren’t hurt and everyone moves on, at least for one more year.
That’s likely what will happen with Franson on Monday afternoon.
A week later, the Leafs may not be so lucky – and their ongoing goalie drama will get another chapter.