The Chicago Blackhawks continued the overhaul of their defense Thursday by signing free agent defenseman Cody Franson to a PTO. The non-guaranteed deal allows Franson to join the Hawks for camp and preseason in the hopes of earning a contract for the season.
There’s been a good deal of discussion surrounding Franson lately because of his status as the top defenseman left on the market. He’s a 30-year-old with a strong track record on the analytics side, and while hockey folks don’t love his lack of foot speed, it’s a sensible move given how low-risk it is.
The main reason for that is the complete uncertainty surrounding the Blackhawks’ defense next season. They’ve removed a bunch of veterans from the situation, and the plan right now appears to be to lean heavily on Connor Murphy, Michal Kempny, and Gustav Forsling, who don’t exactly have a ton of success at the NHL level.
Franson, on the other hand, does have success. It should be couched with the context that he’s been sheltered at times and wasn’t playing top-pairing minutes, but teams have usually gotten effective play from him when he’s not asked to do too much. Four seasons of 29-plus points and a plus-2.6 percent career Corsi Relative reflect that.
None of this is to say that Franson should suddenly be on the Blackhawks’ top pairing, or that he’s the missing piece to put this team over the top.
Instead, I think the signing of Franson would be most useful in ensuring the avoidance of a total disaster. The Blackhawks’ defense could go 20 different ways next season. Franson is a reliable veteran who should help limit the odds that it goes totally sideways and sinks the season.
Without him, the Hawks likely would’ve been using Ville Pokka or Jan Rutta on the right side of the third pairing. Consider what that’d mean for the team’s defense:
- An aging top duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook
- A former first-round pick in Murphy who made Arizona’s top-pairing in his early 20s but wasn’t effective in the role
- Three largely unproven young players
There’s a good chance that results in a total fiasco. What if Murphy shows he’s not any better than he was in Arizona, Forsling’s development stalls, Kempny keeps making mistakes, and Rutta shows he should be back in Europe? All of those things are totally possible. The Blackhawks didn’t really have any contingencies in place to handle it.
Franson doesn’t miraculously solve this issue, but he blunts the impact of those potential problems. Okay, so Murphy is struggling? Now you have another right-handed defenseman who could reasonable eat top-four minutes without being a total mess. You’re also not banking entirely on Pokka or Rutta to be an NHL-ready defenseman. Now, if Michal Rozisval goes on LTIR, one of those two can be your seventh guy. Let him rotate in occasionally and try to take someone’s job.
None of this fixes Chicago’s defense. The team still needs Murphy to blossom in a new environment. It still needs Kempny or Forsling to break out in a top-four role on the left side. The team will never live up to its full potential if none of those things happen, in which case we shouldn’t expect another Stanley Cup.
But on the flip side, this tweaks the odds in a positive way. If Franson earns a deal, which I think he will, it helps ensure the Hawks won’t be handing big NHL minutes to the likes of Carl Dahlstrom anytime soon. There’s a good chance the former Sabre is better than Pokka or Rutta. He’s not The Plan, but a smart depth addition that ensures this season won’t hinge entirely on The Plan’s success.
A great season likely depends on what everyone but Franson does on defense. But avoiding an outright terrible season? That’s something his presence could help with.