If there is one thing the Toronto Maple Leafs won't be this year, it's quiet.
"We're a much more vocal group this year than we were last year," defenceman Cody Franson said moments after a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre. "Last year we kind of almost had our tail between our legs a little bit and were quiet and this year Randy's made a point of making sure we're very vocal and confident in all situations regardless of the score."
Head coach Randy Carlyle has been lauded by several players, including Nazem Kadri, for his communication style. He always makes it clear what he expects from his players. When they are scratched or demoted in the lineup he lays out the reasons why so they understand. But it doesn't stop there. Carlyle also demands his players communicate with each other. And for the pairing of Franson and Mark Fraser this has been one of the keys to their success.
"Fras is a really easy guy to read on the ice for me," explained Franson. "He keeps things very simple. He talks a lot. He's just one of those guys who I feel like I've played with for the last five years. We just kind of have that chemistry. When you get into a string of games with a person like that and you just start to feel the rhythm of how they feel the game and how they read situations it just gets easier as you go."
"He's actually helped me out a lot just as far as our chatter on the ice," said Fraser, "and just reminding me positionally of where to be and who's open and what not. That's instrumental in us developing as a pairing when you can communicate like that."
Carlyle has recognized the Fraser-Franson chemistry and has rewarded them with more minutes. Earlier this season the coach admitted he was leaning too heavily on his top pairing and specifically captain Dion Phaneuf. Carlyle is now spreading out the minutes out more.
Fraser played a season-high 18:11 against the Flyers (3:42 more than his previous high this year) finishing with a plus-4 rating. He helped fill the void after Korbinian Holzer was ejected for boarding in the second period. Franson played more than 20 minutes on Saturday in Montreal and followed that up with 17:48 of solid ice time in the win over Philadelphia while picking up two assists. The B.C. native now has points in four straight games and leads the team defence corps with eight points.
The success of Toronto's third defensive pairing has helped the Leafs not just survive, but thrive with the reliable Carl Gunnarsson (hip) sidelined and Jake Gardiner in the minors trying to work his way back to the NHL. It has also kept veteran Mike Komisarek in the press box as a healthy scratch the last five games.
"We've just been able to click really well," said Fraser, who owns the club's top plus-minus rating (+10). "He's just a great puck mover and I enjoy playing with another big body and we both complement each other, because we're capable of doing different things. He's got great hands, great passing and I think he knows I'm there to back him up always not just defensively, but physically as well. It has been a thrill to play with him."
Fraser has always been known for his gritty play and, sure enough, he leads the Leafs with four fights. His overall toughness has pushed Franson to up that part of his game as well.
"Fraser is a hard guy to play against and he's one of those guys that it's kind of the 'Oh no' routine," explained Dallas Eakins, who coached Fraser with the Toronto Marlies earlier this season. "When the other team steps on the ice [I want them to] look across and say, 'Oh no.' And it doesn't have to be just toughness. 'Oh no, that guy might beat me with skill … Oh no he might beat me with speed … Oh no he might beat me by being physical,' and you got to have that. Mark Fraser has the, 'Oh no,' attitude when he's on the ice."
"I've always tried to make my game more physical," said Franson, "and, you know, some nights the opportunities just aren't really there and the way me and Fras have put our game together it has presented ourselves with a little more of a chance to make those kinds of hits and get on the body a little bit more. He's done a really good job. He's obviously a physical guy and it allows me to read plays even better and get in on the body."
Franson and Fraser are also linked by their hunger for redemption after going through tough times a year ago. Franson got off on the wrong foot with former head coach Ron Wilson after coming to Toronto from Nashville in an off-season trade and never really found his footing. Fraser, meanwhile, spent most of the season in the American Hockey League playing just four games with the New Jersey Devils.
Now Franson and Fraser are helping each other find success in the NHL.
"We're just on the same page," Franson said. "When I'm thinking reverse, he's calling reverse and that's just kind of the way it feels with us right now. It feels like we've played together for a long time. Hats off to him. He's playing really well. He's making my nights real easy for me."