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NHL Free Agency 2017: Cody Franson could give Sharks flexibility

San Jose doesn’t need another defenseman right now, but they might if the team makes a big move.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks currently don’t need another defenseman. The top six seems set, with Dylan DeMelo due for a shot in David Schlemko’s vacated spot, while Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed will likely be in the mix for DeMelo’s old role as the team’s seventh blueliner.

But if San Jose is able to acquire a “key piece” via trade, as General Manager Doug Wilson intimated that the team is willing to do during an interview with Dan Rusanowsky last week, there’s a good chance they will. Both Taylor Hall and Ryan Johansen were traded straight up for top-four defensemen.

The Sharks aren’t going to move Brent Burns or Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Paul Martin’s age precludes him from being the centerpiece of such a trade. That leaves Justin Braun, who’s signed for two more seasons at a $3,800,000 salary cap hit. Braun may not be enough by himself to land a “key piece,” but would likely have to be part of any deal.

As deep as the Sharks are on defense, replacing Braun internally would represent a fairly substantial risk. Ryan and Heed have combined to play one NHL game, while DeMelo would be asked to slide into a top-four role in his third season after two years of irregular action. Luckily, there is a defenseman available in free agency who could slide into Braun’s role, and provide a stopgap solution as DeMelo, Ryan, and San Jose’s other defensive prospects continue to develop.

Enter Cody Franson.

The 29-year-old somewhat surprisingly remains unsigned. On the league’s second-worst possession team, Franson managed to post a 50.4% Corsi-for percentage and 50.8% Fenwick-for percentage, with relative Corsi and Fenwick percentages of 4.3% and 5.0%, according to Hockey Reference. He did this despite starting 35.1% of his shifts in the defensive zone, the third-highest mark among Sabres defensemen, according to Puckaltyics.

Franson can still drive play, but his scoring has stalled over the last couple of seasons. He scored 17 points in 59 games in 2015-16, and 19 in 68 last season. Part of that, at least, can be explained by the Sabres’ low shooting percentage at even strength when Franson was on the ice, as Buffalo scored on just 5.2% and 6.8% of their shots while Franson played over the last two seasons, respectively.

Yet even with the decline, Franson still surpasses Braun’s offensive production, while suppressing shots at a higher rate, as the chart from Own the Puck shows below:

Franson would be something of a like-for-like replacement for Braun, and the Sharks should explore signing him if they move Braun this summer. Signing him regardless would be smart, too, but doesn’t seem to be in the cards given how Wilson and the rest of the organization are stressing that they will give young players a chance to make the NHL roster.

It may not even get to that point, especially if the Sharks don’t trade Braun this summer. Franson could reportedly join Chicago on a professional try-out in training camp if he doesn’t have a deal in place by then, and San Jose likely wouldn’t sign him by then if they don’t trade Braun.

Still, Franson is a signing worth considering, and one would that would give the Sharks enough flexibility to improve their roster via trade.