A pair of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman with opposing characteristics found themselves on the outside looking in this week.
Cody Franson was waived through the league – and went unclaimed, a point I’ll expand on in this piece.
Veteran Brent Seabrook was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career on Tuesday against the Senators, a contention about the rearguard’s struggles this season – and commentary on the state of his specific skillset and where it lands in today’s high speed, high octane NHL environment.
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The one common element between both defenders is the lack of footspeed. Franson’s skating and defensive play has been in question since his days as a Toronto Maple Leaf, while Seabrook may have a warrior’s mentality and physicality, but lacks the skating and agility required to be a positive impact on a nightly basis.
It can't be easy to be healthy scratched as a leader amongst teammates – and perhaps a claxon to the blueline to perform better from the back end and a stern message from coaching staff.
A pure numbers analysis reveals the downward spiral isn’t new, and Seabrook hasn’t been drifting downward lately, but rather a forewarning when he signed his mega contract, lacking the speed and agility required for survival – let alone success in today’s NHL. A booming shot, with a declining propensity to let them go from the point will only prove unproductive offensively over the long term. Inducing defensive risk is another matter, and that’s one of the main reasons for his sitting against Ottawa.
Within the analytics community Seabrook was believed to be overvalued and slowly emerging as an on-ice anchor, exactly what was predicted when he signed his career contract.
Both players offered some very different skill sets, with Franson taking prolonged time to sign contracts in free agency, leaving some perplexed. By now, everyone knows the situation with Brent Seabrook, signed for an exorbitant amount long-term.
Seabrook is pointless in his last nine games at 5v5, and removed entirely in the last five games from the 5v4 power play after being a regular. He rotated among five pairings last season, and in 2017-18 was separated from Duncan Keith 10 games into the season, where Keith would partner with Cody Franson immediately following.
Together with Keith, Franson would experience a dreadful 2.54% on-ice shooting percentage, and they both posted decent numbers together, making the decision to waive him somewhat perplexing. The goals weren’t there, but it wasn’t like they were being badly outplayed while on the ice together.
It’s a striking difference from the 12.9% on-ice shooting percentage with Michal Kempny.
**Data via Natural Stat Trick
Seabrook moved on to partner most alongside Arizona discard, Connor Murphy.
Together with Murphy, they experienced a 10.16% on-ice shooting percentage, significantly higher than the 5.79% with Keith. We can use WOWY’s (with or without you) statistics for a representative performance with and without players on the ice. Even the numbers point out Seabrook anchoring Murphy, with the latter registering better results in every shooting metric, from attempts, scoring chances and to high danger scoring chances, without the trouper rearguard.
Franson has been venerated within some inner circles of the analytics community (although not overall or unanimously), often exasperated by the prolonged delays in signing a contract as a free agent. Contract lengths have been short term for his entire career, everywhere he’s played. With fundamental flaws embedded in his skill set, and for all the negativity surrounding the way that he looks wild and desperate at times while on the ice, his numbers are usually favorably good. This is a constant, despite not getting prime minutes and slotting somewhere lower in the roster against lesser competition.
Being waived through the NHL without being claimed was a point of contention and caused its own Twitter storm where some feel adding Franson is an advantage over contentious defenseman already on their active current rosters. It’s believed to be like a free upgraded asset to exploit for a cheap contract and no future obligation, while moving an underperforming asset up to the press box – or waived to the AHL.
He can still be traded. In this NHL, anything can happen, like Calvin Pickard acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs after being waived.
Franson’s skating has always been a point of contention on my part – further exaggerated by hip issues that was sure to hinder his career. I found him to lack footspeed, and the required pivoting ability skating backwards – a point that good forwards will exploit. Turning him around on a rush will slow down his movement and forces to resort to physicality and excessive force. His size led to early career complaints about not utilizing his imposing size and stature to his advantage. In his final season as a Toronto Maple Leaf blueliner, he used excessive force on many occasions and often took himself out of the play looking to lay the body.
Defensive shortcomings aside, he can fire pucks from the point – often and on net – and has good skills to keep pucks onside at the opposition blueline. Is this enough to keep him as a regular on an NHL blueline?
From the activity over the last few days, it doesn’t appear so.
Brent Seabrook may be more suited for a role on a lower pairing, with a salary close to $7 million, it's difficult to justify a specialized and limited role.