Making sense of the Blackhawks’ decision to place Cody Franson on waivers

Why would Chicago be willing to get rid of an effective defenseman?

The Chicago Blackhawks put a player with very good numbers on the open market by placing Cody Franson on waivers Monday. Somebody needed to go to free up space on the roster for the eventual return of Artem Anisimov from injured reserve, but it’s a bit unexpected that the veteran defenseman was the one to be pushed out.

There’s already been some surprise on social media reacting to Franson’s availability. He is, by all metrics, a very good player. He leads the Blackhawks in 5-on-5 Corsi and expected goals percentage, according to Corsica. He’s been very effective in the role asked of him. Why would you get rid of someone like him?

The problem, at least in Chicago, seems to come down to the way Quenneville uses his defensemen, and the emergence of Jordan Oesterle.

One of the more notable things to follow for the Blackhawks’ defense this season is how Quenneville has used Duncan Keith. Among blue liners with more than 500 minutes of 5-on-5 play this season, he has the ninth-highest zone start rating, which means only eight defenders have been given more favorable zone start distribution.

This is a bit new for Keith. Here’s his ZSR over the past five seasons (higher means more offensive zone starts):

2013-14: 55.85
2014-15: 54.07
2015-16: 45.64
2016-17: 52.28
2017-18: 62.62

This season more than ever, Quenneville has used Keith to try to drive offense. The defensive zone starts have more typically gone to Jan Rutta, Gustav Forsling, and Connor Murphy. And paired up with Oesterle, a gifted offensive defenseman with five points in his last five games, the Blackhawks don’t seem to have a plan to move away from that anytime soon.

Getting back to Franson, this simply wasn’t going to work for him. The problem with giving Keith-Oesterle all those offensive zone starts is that somebody needs to take the tougher assignments. And the way the Hawks were using Franson, which helped drive his very good Corsi numbers, wasn’t really going to fit with a team that’s already feeding favorable conditions to its top pairing. His ZSR was even higher than Keith’s (64.5), and once Oesterle thrived on the top pairing, there wasn’t a fit for Franson.

Now, you can argue that the Blackhawks should’ve been willing to challenge Franson more because he wasn’t used like this in past stops. He typically put up ZSR figures around or below 50 with the Maple Leafs and Sabres. His numbers away from Keith this year are exceptional, so you could argue Keith should be challenged more while a Franson pairing feasts on those chances in the offensive zone. Having Keith take on an easier role may not be a workable plan in the postseason.

But that’s not how the Blackhawks’ coaching staff wanted to use Franson or Keith now, and it made the former an imperfect fit for a team that’s trying to adjust to its aging, highly paid defensemen. The team seems to be onto something with Keith-Oesterle, you can’t put Franson on his offside with Brent Seabrook, and the third pairing needs to fill a role he’s not best equipped for.

So you add it all up and the Blackhawks have just put a pretty good defenseman with a $1 million cap hit on the market. Presumably this came after combing the trade market to see if anyone would give up anything interesting for him, which means the Hawks aren’t the only team that isn’t super enamored with him. Still, even though he seemingly can’t stick with a team despite being an analytics darling, it’d be surprising if he’s still in the Hawks’ organization Tuesday afternoon.