TORONTO – For the past two weeks, Cody Franson was living the life of a Ryerson Ram. Two-hour skates, five times a week at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on the campus of the university in downtown Toronto.
Early on Thursday morning, Franson swung by his temporary training camp home, grabbed his sticks and gear, completed a physical and by 11am had joined his NHL teammates at practice. The 26-year-old agreed to a one-year deal with the Leafs worth $2 million late on Wednesday evening, ending a difficult and lengthy negotiation.
"I'm glad it's done," said a gleeful Franson, following the nearly two-hour on-ice session. "It's a process nobody really wants to go through. Fortunately, we were able to find a common ground and get it done before the regular season started."
With his contract status finally settled, Franson will shift his focus toward demonstrating that a terrific sampling in 48 games last season – sixth among NHL defenders in points – was just a harbinger of things to come; prove his viability to the organization with another good year. The Leafs certainly believe in that potential, but want to see it demonstrated over the course of another 82 games. If proved right, they'll happily commit to the B.C. native for the long-term.
"The second you get complacent is the second you make a mistake," Franson said of taking the next step. "I learned that firsthand my first year [in Toronto], coming in a little comfortable. I got put in the press box because of it. I'll never make that mistake twice."
Franson proved increasingly valuable to the Leafs as the 2013 calendar wore on. A late addition to training camp – following a similarly stunted negotiation that was solved hours after the lockout ended – he started the year with minimal ice-time, drawing about 14 minutes nightly in January, before emerging with upwards of 22 minutes a few months later in April.
It was a demonstration which suggested he was capable of becoming a dependable top-4 NHL defender, both in the present and in the future. "When you get people that are developing and [having] more of an impact on your blue-line, you have to credit the player with that," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of Franson, who found a partner in Mark Fraser five games into the season. "He's the one that earned it."
Not only did his offensive incline come to the forefront, but he also made adjustments defensively, aligning with the Carlyle way with a more assertive and aggressive defensive lean.
"What he did is he committed more to a physical game which allowed him a little bit more space," Carlyle said of the 6-5 defender, adding that Franson, as a right-hand shot, was increasingly valuable on a defence chock-full of lefties.
Realizing more of that potential, through continued growth defensively and sustained success offensively, will be the challenge of the coming year.
As can often be the case in restricted free agency, Franson was stung by the process, believing that he deserved more than the organization chose to offer in negotiations throughout the summer. But with the cap falling to $64 million this season, he also came to understand that the annual number he sought over a longer term was not going to be realized, thus his insistence on a one-year deal with more to come down the line.
The two sides found "middle ground" at the final pressure point (arbitration and the start of training camp flying by with no movement) when the club moved on the term of the deal – they strongly preferred two years – and Franson budged by accepting an annual number below market value.
"I think both sides gave in a little bit," said Leafs assistant general manager Claude Loiselle.
By following up on his breakthrough year with more of the same this season, Franson has his sights on a bigger payday next summer – the Leafs have 12 players in a similar boat, their contracts expiring after the coming season – though he will again remain a restricted free agent, albeit with arbitration rights.
"One year was important to us," he told TSN.ca via text message early Thursday morning. "With the current cap situation, a two-year deal was very difficult to get at what we felt was fair.
"A one-year [deal] was the most reasonable way for us to find a middle ground."
Achieving that middle ground was not without its frustrations, both for the player and the organization. Easier said than done is not absorbing the negotiation as a personal afront, something Franson had his trouble with it as the process lingered.
Ending his dispute with the Leafs shortly before training camp was due to begin, Nazem Kadri could sympathize with the struggle.
"It's hard to [not take it personally] because when you're negotiating your deals, you've got to look at numbers and you've got to have comparisons and sometimes you may not like the comparisons, but the numbers match up," Kadri told TSN.ca. "It's just business really. That's what I've learned. I know it can maybe turn into a personal issue, but normally the player is just looking out for what's best for him and the team is looking out for what's best for them. Everyone just wants to make a deal in the end."
"At the end of it, you sit back and you look at it and you realize it's just business," Franson reflected. "They've got a job to do and that is to try and make everything work [under the cap]. I understand that. This is where I want to be. This is my dream place to play. I'm hopeful that it's a long-term deal coming up after this."
For now, with Franson finally locked up, the Leafs find themselves in a cap squeeze, the roster requiring some carving and a degree of sculpting before opening day next week. Almost certainly, they will not be able to carry the roster maximum of 23 players, hurt by the 10-game suspension to David Clarkson and the uncertain status of Frazer McLaren, who could be placed on long-term injured reserve (finger injury) to offer a little wiggle room.
"It's still the same situation as if Cody had signed at the beginning of camp," Loiselle said. "We're still evaluating. We still have two games left and we'll see how it shakes out."
Paired with Fraser throughout his first practice – Jake Gardiner remains an option additionally as a partner, the two paired together late in the playoffs – Franson will likely play in both of the remaining exhibition games this weekend, a home and home set with Detroit.
Though he enjoyed a brief and albeit unwanted experience at Ryerson, Franson was just pleased to be back in the routine of his NHL life, ready to take the next step forward – both personally and with his team.
"I love being here in Toronto," he concluded. "This is where I want to be and that's the main reason why everything happened. I'm happy it's done and looking forward to getting going."