A bizarre trade went down earlier this morning, one that sent 23-year old defenseman Cody Franson along with centre Matthew Lombardi to Toronto in exchange for defender Brett Lebda and forward Robert Slaney.  Additionally, if Lombardi plays 60 games over the next two seasons, Nashville will add a fourth-round pick from the Leafs, while if he doesn’t the Leafs will take a fourth-rounder from Nashville.

I did a double-take when I saw what the Leafs acquired, and what they had given up.  Make no mistake: the Leafs just bought themselves a pretty good young player.

First, the return that Nashville got was, at best, negligible.  The Leafs are probably happy to have Slaney off their 50-man contract list; the 22-year old is a second year professional and is at this point a mid-level ECHL player, desperately struggling to make the jump to the AHL.  He’s the hockey player equivalent of a bag of pucks.

Brett Lebda makes $1.45 million next season.  Among Leafs defensemen in 2010-11, none played more favourable minutes – Lebda faced both the easiest opposition and had far and away the best Zone Start ratio in the group.  He also played more than 2:00 per night on the power play, while not being required to kill any penalties.  That sort of ice-time generally requires offensive success, but Lebda managed just four points in 41 games.  At the very least, one expects defensive competency from such a sheltered blue-liner; Lebda had the worst plus/minus of any Leafs’ blue-liner, at minus-14.  At his best, he’s a middling third-pairing defenseman.  If he keeps playing the way he did last season, he isn’t an NHL’er.

The player Nashville wanted to be rid of in this deal was Matthew Lombardi.  Lombardi had a breakout season of sorts in 2009-10, scoring 19 goals and recording 53 points for the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Predators rewarded him with a three-year contract at an average cap hit of $3.5 million.  Unfortunately, just two games into the season Lombardi suffered a serious concussion; he hasn’t played since.  Worse, this isn’t Lombardi’s first concussion.  Worst of all for the Predators, though, is the fact that they don’t have insurance on him – if his career is in jeopardy, the small-market team might have found themselves paying just north of $10 million for two games over three seasons.

This is where the opening was for the Leafs.  They agreed to take on Lombardi, and rid themselves of two minor headaches in the process: a guy taking up a spot on their contract list with little to no shot at an NHL career, and an overpaid depth defenseman coming off a miserable season.  The real gem, though, from a Toronto perspective is the other player they acquired from the Predators: Cody Franson.

Franson established himself on the Nashville blue-line last season, and immediately showcased the skills that made him such a valuable prospect for the Predators.  He contributed immediately to the second unit of Nashville’s power play, scoring 2.42 PTS/60 in 5-on-4 play (a strong number for a second unit defenseman).  At even strength, the 6’5” Franson was generally used as a third-pairing defender, but he delivered in a way Lebda could only dream of, scoring a phenomenal 1.34 PTS/60 (that’s elite production at even-strength) in 5-on-5 play while putting up strong puck possession numbers and sitting around the 50% mark in Zone Starts.  As it stands right now, he’s a coach’s dream on the third-pairing, and he has offense, size and youth on his size.  He’ll be an important player for Toronto next season.

It’s tough not to feel that Predators’ GM David Poile was forced into this – money for nothing is fine if you’re running the New York Rangers, but Nashville needs to save every penny.  Brian Burke offered Poile a way out, willingly taking on the money for a chance to improve his hockey club.

It’s another sign that even in a salary cap world, there’s a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots.