TORONTO - Cody Franson thought he came here to make a difference on defence, not to sit on the bench.
But after all the talk of the Maple Leafs pulling off a coup in the trade with Nashville for the 6-foot-5 Franson — and the player’s own excitement at coming back to the hockey town where his family wanted him — he is picking out civilian clothes for Thursday’s NHL opener. He was once more the seventh man at Tuesday’s MasterCard Centre practice, behind pre-camp long shots such as Mike Komisarek and Jake Gardiner.
“It didn’t look too good out there for me today,” a sullen Franson said. “I had a lot of confidence coming in here, but apparently I didn’t show up well enough in camp or something. It’s frustrating. I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but right now, I’m not too thrilled about it.”
Franson had switched from No. 22 to No. 4 a couple of days ago, his old ID with the Predators, and was pumped about the start. Back in Sicamous, B.C., relatives have been looking forward to the opener against Montreal since the July trade.
But something has changed in the Leafs’ thinking, perhaps not so much with Franson, but with other pieces on the chessboard. General manager Brian Burke was bullish on the Leafs getting bigger on the blue line, frequently mentioning the size aspect with Franson and Keith Aulie. But the latter was dropped even further than Franson earlier in the week, right to the Marlies.
The rise of rookie Gardiner clearly dictated some changes to the blueprint and the club feels that his rushing ability is best complemented by Komisarek as his partner. That left Franson the odd man out after Luke Schenn was teamed with John-Michael Liles and Dion Phaneuf with Gunnarsson. There have been rumours that Gunnarsson is already being showcased for a trade, but Toronto just signed him to a new deal and would be risking valuable early points with such lineup tinkering.
“I think Cody has been fine,” coach Ron Wilson said. “But right now, we have some guys playing a little bit better. He has to stay ready, he’s going to play lots.”
Franson only knows he’ll likely be in the Air Canada Centre press box at game time, unless something changes in the next 48 hours.
“I have no idea (what management’s lineup plan is), it’s just not the start I was looking for,” Franson said. “I don’t really understand it or get it. But that’s the game of hockey, that’s the way she goes and I have to adapt to it.
“I just know I’m not in the spot I want to be in right now.”
Aulie who doesn’t require waivers to go down, was on the road with the Marlies on Tuesday night for their last of two AHL exhibition games against Syracuse. That’s where Aulie started last year, but a big second half as Phaneuf’s partner seemed to solidify his spot heading into camp. Burke said just a few days earlier that Aulie and Komisarek were not candidates for demotion. But Gardiner’s play excited the brass, at least to the point where they want to see how his go-go style works at the NHL level.
With the exception of some messy plays in the Detroit exhibition series, Komisarek and Gardiner worked well.
“He has his talents,” Komisarek said. “He is working on little details, fine-tuning his game. I feel like when you get to this level, as a defenceman, the difference is the little details. He’s 21 and you don’t see too many make it. How old is Drew Doughty, (P.K.) Subban, how old was Shea Weber? Just a handful of guys (make it at that age).”
Wilson, meanwhile, used the defence depth debate to champion Komisarek’s cause. There was ample reason to think he was headed for a reduced role, despite a $4.5-million contract. However, he showed up at camp lighter and in better spirits than in a difficult 2010-11 season.
“To most people, the idea of Komisarek starting, they’re upset by that,” Wilson claimed. “But Komo has played as well as any of our defencemen. That’s why he’s in there.”
Wilson didn’t dispute that Komisarek’s two-year career with the Leafs has been marked by strife after he came from the Canadiens as a big-ticket signing.
“He just didn’t play well,” Wilson said. “Now he is, he’s confident and I want him to stay confident.”
The same can’t be said of Franson at present.