TORONTO – In each of the past two offseasons Cody Franson and the Maple Leafs disagreed on the worth of the now 26-year-old defender. Contract disputes lingered for days, weeks and months in the winter of 2012 and once more in summer of 2013 before the two sides finally compromised on an unhappy middle with a pair of one-year contracts.
Franson, not surprisingly, feels he has something to prove in his third season in Toronto.
"Definitely," he said in conversation with the Leaf Report on Tuesday afternoon. "That's the way my dad raised me was 'live by proving people wrong', have that motivation and drive to make people that say you're not eat their words."
Franson believed that he'd established himself as a viable top-4 defender last season, when he broke out with 29 points in 45 games, but Dave Nonis and the Leafs management group wanted to see more. They weren't sure what the Sicamous, B.C. native was (the half-season sample size undoubtedly a factor) and balked at committing the sizeable term and dollars he desired in free agency (hence the one-year deal worth $2 million).
Soon to be a restricted agent once more in the summer of 2014, Franson is out to prove that he's worthy of such an investment. Entrenched with the significant role and responsibility he always wanted upon landing with the Leafs via trade from Nashville, Franson is only half-satisfied with the season he's had to date.
"It's going okay, but I can do more," said Franson, who will assume top pairing duty in the absence of suspended captain Dion Phaneuf. "I feel like I can do more. I feel I can help produce more. I can be a bigger part in our group turning things around."
The Leafs have stumbled into December, struggling to generate offence and adequately defend amid a stretch which has seen them win just twice in regulation in 17 games. Now without their captain and leading minute-eater for the next two games – against top teams from Los Angeles and St. Louis no less – they'll need others, Franson most prominently, to step up their game.
"The challenges are bountiful as we go forward into the season," said Randy Carlyle of a year that's seen an increasing number of injuries and suspensions, "but somebody else now gets an opportunity to fill those minutes."
Be it offensively or defensively, Franson feels his game could stand to rise on a number of different fronts.
The scoring leader of the Toronto defence once again this season – he has 14 points – Franson is nonetheless concerned by his inability to find the back of the net. He had four goals on 70 shots in 2013, but has yet score on any of the 40 attempts he's fired so far this year.
Directing more pucks on net, thus creating not only goals but rebound opportunities for teammates, will aid in the team's struggling offensive attack – the Leafs have just 23 even-strength goals during this lasting 17-game run.
"Obviously not having scored a goal is in my head," he said, noting a desire to increase his overall offensive production. "It's been a tough year to try and get shots through to the net and really help our forwards in that sense. That's bothering me a bit."
Amongst the best at his position in producing offence at even-strength last season – he had 16 points, tied for 12th most among NHL defenders – Franson has just three such points this season, the majority of his production coming on one of the league's top power-plays.
Because the Leafs have struggled to move the puck effectively for the better part of the opening two-plus months they've been ineffective with a forecheck from which they'd like to initiate offence. One of their better puck-movers, Franson can help in that regard with some measure of improvement.
"I haven't got enough of those this year," said Franson of even-strength points, 11 of his 14 assists coming with the man advantage. "That's something I've been trying to focus on in getting better at and try to help our team win."
Already second in ice-time among Leaf defenders – 21 minutes per game –Franson is poised to peg, if not more minutes, than more difficult minutes with Phaneuf suspended for tough tests against the Kings and Blues.
He was paired with Carl Gunnarsson on the top pairing of Tuesday's practice.
Though he's made strides in the right direction in Toronto, Franson remains a work in progress in the defensive zone. Part of that growth lies in his assertiveness and physicality. The 6-foot-5 defender has always been prodded to employ the requisite physical game his size is said to demand. Under the direction of Carlyle he has improved considerably.
Franson actually leads all NHL defenders with 98 hits (entering Tuesday's action), quite a shift for a player who had 55 in his first 61 NHL games with Nashville.
"I've gotten better," said Franson, "but there's always room for improvement. I've watched the video clips of myself after a lot of games and I see spots where I know I could've at least bumped a guy there or a guy takes a shot and I was more worried about the rebound than finishing [him] into the wall. Just some things that I need to get back into the habit of doing and it'll help me."
Habit has also been forced to change with a steady mix of defensive partners. Unlike last season, when he played with Mark Fraser almost exclusively, Franson has shifted from partner to partner amid the team's struggles on the back-end.
Gunnarsson will be the fifth partner he's been paired with already this season. The adjustment is as subtle as thinking versus reacting instinctually.
"[I]t makes you think a little more and sometimes I'm thinking too much and it's making me read things a little slower than I should be and in turn making me not quite as aggressive as I'd like to be," said Franson. "I've got to get that down a little quicker and it'll help."
Such improvements will go a long ways toward proving the "naysayers" wrong while helping the Leafs turn a much-needed corner.