Light goes on for Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson
Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson signs autographs at the MasterCard Centre after his first skate of the lockout-shortened training camp, Jan. 15, 2013. (JACK BOLAND/Toronto Sun)
Cody Franson went all the way to Sweden to realize he has to start playing physical hockey to keep his NHL career on the rails.
OK, so it might not be that cut and dried for the Maple Leafs defenceman, who spent the lockout patrolling the blueline for Brynas IF in the Swedish Elite League.
But the 6-foot-5, 213-pound Franson, about to embark on his fourth season in the NHL, apparently is ready to grasp the fact he has to start using his body to his advantage.
“Definitely,” Franson said on Tuesday.
“It’s a knock that has followed me around forever. Be better defensively, be more physical. I am trying to improve on everything. I want to get more shots through to the net. Be good in the defensive zone.
“Be a guy who is accountable. I don’t want to be a guy who people are hesitant to put on the ice in (certain) situations.”
Franson joined his Leafs teammates at the MasterCard Centre after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract and then passing a physical. He had been a restricted free agent, but always was in the Leafs’ plans.
That the light seems to have finally gone on for the 25-year-old isn’t lost on coach Randy Carlyle. In a perfect world, had Franson might have been a robust, hard-hitting defenceman since graduating from the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, he would have been just the kind of defenceman Carlyle covets.
Now, Franson, who was in and out of Ron Wilson’s dog house for much of last season, has to convince Carlyle he can be that player.
“We expect him to be physical in the defensive zone,” Carlyle said. “We expect him to be able to possibly play on the second unit on the power play and move the puck effectively. I think that is what his strengths are. Is he a big, rough (and) tumble guy? I would say no.
“But he is a big man who covers a lot of space on the ice and there is some aggressiveness we would like to instill in him. And push him in that direction. Today was his first day and there were a couple of situations in defensive zone coverage where I think he could have been quicker to the guy, and I think he was taking measured steps to the guy, (but) that is not going to work here.”
Franson is not the only veteran defenceman trying to get back on track. Mike Komisarek is guaranteed of nothing, despite having two years left on a contract that represents a $4.5 million salary cap hit each season.
Three Marlies — Mark Fraser, Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka — are hungry for a job in the defence corps. Mike Mottau was just signed. Morgan Rielly is trying to crack the lineup after he was drafted fifth overall by the Leafs last June.
“For me, at this point, I have nothing to lose,” Komisarek said. “I want to re-establish myself and I’m here to help this team win.”
Franson found the simpler pace in Sweden to his liking, whether it was more days off between games or living in Gavle, a city of 72,000 that’s a couple of hours’ drive north of Stockholm. In 26 games for Brynas, Franson had three goals and four assists and was minus-3, recording 10 penalty minutes.
But for motivation, Franson needs nothing more than the despair he felt last season when he was getting benched by Wilson. It’s a place Franson has no desire to visit again.
“It was a battle mentally,” Franson said. “That’s what I’m going to focus on this year — control what I can control, go out there and work and prove my worth.
“I try to learn from my mistakes and I’m not taking anything for granted any more. I might have let my foot off the gas a little bit last year, but I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Last year it was tough to stay positive every day.
“I thought a lot about it over the summer. I want to prove to everybody that I’m capable.”
GARDINER ‘VERY CLOSE’
Jake Gardiner was back on skates Tuesday for the first time since he was injured last month.
But whether the Maple Leafs sophomore defenceman, who is recovering from whiplash/concussion symptoms, is ready for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens is debatable.
“He looked good skating, and hopefully that is a step,” coach Randy Carlyle said after practice at the MasterCard Centre. “What you have to say to all of them, is that if we have a chance for you to play Saturday, you are going to have to get on the ice (Tuesday). That is the reality of it. That is his decision. Basically what happened is there is a lot of positives and he has come a long way and he is very close.”
Gardiner, who was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team for the 2011-12 season, was hurt on Dec. 8 while playing for the Toronto Marlies. Gardiner has not been cleared for physical contact. At this point, it would not make a lot of sense to put him in the lineup after he has missed days of intense practising with his teammates. He skated on his own before teammates hit the ice for their training camp session.
“I told him, if he does not feel like 100%, then don’t go out there,” Carlyle said. “The bottom line is, you have to have healthy players. We are not going to push him in a situation that he is not comfortable with. The bottom line is if he did not practise today, he is not going to be eligible to play on Saturday and then you move on.”