The Buffalo Sabres have been among the NHL's most active teams this summer. General manager Tim Murray seems hell-bent on rapidly improving his team, and between trades and the draft, he has accomplished an impressive amount in a single offseason.
Apparently, he isn't finished yet. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News reported that the Sabres are in pursuit of defenseman Cody Franson, by far the biggest name left in free agency:
It's an obvious play for Buffalo to make, particularly because it's one of the few teams in the league with lots of cap space at its disposal. General Fanager lists the Sabres as having more than $12 million in cap space; that's a little misleading because the team has rookie bonuses, and the projected roster is 26 names long. But it's fair to say the team has more than enough to add a big-name defenseman.
They also have real need. Based on average ice time from last season, the team's current defensive depth chart looks something like this:
- Josh Gorges—Rasmus Ristolainen
- Mike Weber—Zach Bogosian
- Carlo Colaiacovo—Mark Pysyk
- Matt Donovan—Chad Ruhwedel
(Prospect Jake McCabe is also worth mentioning as a potential candidate at left defense, while minor league journeyman Bobby Sanguinetti may see time on the right side.)
The one wrinkle here is that the point of obvious weakness for the Sabres is on the left side of the depth chart, while Franson is a right shot. In all likelihood, either Franson would move to the left side or (more probably) Bogosian and Ristolainen would be united on the top pairing, with Weber bumped down the third unit.
Aside from the fact that he's a right-shooting rearguard, Franson is a logical target for Buffalo because he brings elements that the team currently lacks on its blue line. With 400 NHL games under his belt, he'd bring some much-needed experience, including experience playing tough minutes at even strength. At 6'5" and 213 pounds, he'd also be one of the team's bigger rearguards.
Where he might help most is on the power play. The Sabres finished 30th in the NHL on the man advantage last season, and Franson has had some big seasons as a power-play point man. Despite a post-trade-deadline slump, he was one of the NHL's 10 best defensemen in terms of points per hour last year.
Franson's numbers look even better if the sample is expanded. He's one of just 10 defensemen to play at least 500 minutes and score more than 4.5 points per hour on the power play over the last five seasons.
New Sabres coach Dan Bylsma is used to having significant firepower on the man advantage, and while the Sabres don't have a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (not unless Jack Eichel really blows the doors off as a rookie), Franson would give him a reasonable facsimile of Kris Letang.
Importantly, Franson just turned 28 this month. Unlike many free agents, he isn't necessarily just a short-term fix; he's young enough that he could conceivably grow with the Sabres as they make their way back to respectability. Failing that, he should at least be tradeable toward the end of his contract, as there's no reason to expect a drop-off in performance.
This seems like a good fit for team and player alike. Buffalo can offer dollars that other teams can't match, while Franson would give the Sabres a much-needed power-play upgrade and veteran presence at five-on-five. Nobody should be surprised if a deal is reached here.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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