TORONTO - The first baby picture ever snapped of wee Cody Franson showed him decked out in a blue-and-white Wendel Clark jersey.
A little more than two decades later, the kid from Sicamous, B.C., is about to get his own game-worn Maple Leafs version, complete with his name on the back.
You’ve got to give credit to general manager Brian Burke and senior VP David Nonis for their body of work over the past two weeks. While they did not land the big prize of the free agent class in Brad Richards, the additions of Franson, John-Michael Liles, Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi have made the Leafs a better team than the one that finished the 2010-11 campaign by missing the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.
Especially at the back end.
In breaking down the four-player trade between the Leafs and Nashville Predators on Sunday, Franson definitely was the most coveted commodity in the deal that brought he and Lombardi to Toronto for blueliner Brett Lebda and minor-league forward Robert Slaney.
Taking on Lombardi and his $3.5-million US salary is a bit of a gamble, given that he has been out with concussion problems since slamming into the boards in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 13. But with the chance to acquire a 6-foot-5, 213-pound puck-moving defenceman — who is just 23 years old — as part of the swap, the Leafs wisely pulled the trigger.
And, in the end, all they gave up was Lebda, a guy who could not earn a regular spot on the blue line last season, and Slaney, who played in the East Coast Hockey League.
“There’s a risk in that (Lombardi) might not be ready immediately, but we have the cap space to carry him,” Nonis said.
If Lombardi is not ready for the season, there is the option of the long-term (DL), which doesn’t count against the salary cap even though the player is paid.
“For us, it’s worth the risk, especially with Cody Franson in the deal,” Nonis said. “He has size, he has strength, he has a good shot. There is a real offensive upside here. He scored eight goals getting second-unit power-play minutes behind Shea Weber.
“He’s not going to be overly aggressive but he moves well and has a great stick.”
Burke and Nonis always have bought into the blueprint of building from the goal out. It’s obvious they are practising what they preach.
If no more moves are made on the blue line, the Leafs’ top six heading into training camp will be, in no particular order, Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Liles, Franson, Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson. Mike Komisarek and Matt Lashoff seem to be odd men out.
Just three months ago, coach Ron Wilson was forced to use checking-line centre Tim Brent to man the point on the power play. Now, after management’s tweaking of the roster, that is no longer an issue as Liles, Franson, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are poised to fill those roles.
“We’re very happy with that group one through eight,” Nonis said of the Leafs defence corps. “We have puck movers, we have size ... it’s a good mix. Plus we have up-and-comers like Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner, too.”
Where does Komisarek fit in? That stands to be one of the most pressing questions heading into training camp, with more and more fans calling for the team to buy him out.
As for Franson, a lifelong Leafs fan, he’s just euphoric about coming to Toronto.
“My uncle Chris was the one who put the Wendel jersey on me as a baby,” Franson laughed. “He’s crazy about the Leafs. He’s the one that turned me into one. When the trade went down, I called him before I called my parents. My whole family is going nuts.
“The trade really surprised me ... It caught me off-guard.”
For the guy who was decked out in a Wendel shirt as an infant, it’s all good in the end.
Burke and Nonis hope the same can be said for an improving Leafs defence.