I was glad when the Oilers brought Colin Fraser in. It was an acquisition that made sense on a few different levels. I’ll also be happy when they send him on down the line, something they should do at this year’s trade deadline if at all possible.
The third-line centre role is one that has been a weakness for the Oilers ever since Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner were sent away. Fans were strongly supportive of both moves; Stoll helped bring in Lubomir Visnovsky from Los Angeles despite questions about his health and offensive ability, while many resented the reliance of the coaching staff on Reasoner, dubbed ‘Marty Sakic’ after Craig MacTavish made the horrible mistake of cracking joke comparing Reasoner to the then-Avalanche star. Both players have gone on to fill important roles for their teams, with Stoll playing significant minutes on both special teams in L.A. (as well as providing faceoff wins, size and grit) and Reasoner providing a strong two-way presence in the Southeast Division (as well as winning faceoffs and spending a lot of time on the penalty kill).
(Digression: it’s worth noting other losses suffered by the third line in the same general time period. Raffi Torres, whose departure was once again generally approved of by fans, had served the team quite effectively in a checking role, while Fernando Pisani’s injury problems ate away at both his ice-time and his effectiveness during this same period.)
The Oilers tried to fill the hole created by the loss of those two centremen in a variety of ways. Sophomore forward Kyle Brodziak was given a year in the role, but disappointed and was sent away to Minnesota for a marginal return (he has since emerged as a strong two-way option and penalty-killer for the Wild). Fernando Pisani was moved to centre and asked to fill the gap, something he proved incapable of doing. Ryan Potulny was spotted into the role occasionally last season, but for the last year and a half it has been Andrew Cogliano who has been pigeon-holed for the role, despite clear defensive issues and an inability to win faceoffs. Unsurprisingly, that decision has hurt both the team and Cogliano.
When Colin Fraser was acquired from Chicago this summer in a reverse-Brodziak trade, it is easy to think that management pictured him sliding into the third line centre role. After all, Fraser was fresh off a Cup win in a fourth line role with the Blackhawks, and along the way he had been asked to kill penalties, win faceoffs and play a responsible defensive game. He had played a relatively strong season, recording 19 points in 70 games (with limited minutes) to go along with a plus-6 rating, was just 25 years of age, possessed both decent size and a track record of chippy play, and looked a lot like a player ready for more responsibility.
For a team built to go nowhere, taking a chance on a guy like Fraser was a justifiable risk, especially given how little he cost to acquire.
Just shy of the halfway point of the 2010-11 season, I think we can now safely say that this gamble has not worked out. Fraser has been a negligible contributor offensively, has bled shots against defensively, and recently has been relegated to playing immediately behind Ryan O’Marra on the major league depth chart. On a team looking to finally depart the wilderness, there isn’t any room for a player like Colin Fraser to play a significant role.
Of course, it’s plausible that there is no market out there for a player like Fraser, in which case the Oilers will be forced to keep him past the trade deadline, and into next season. In that case, the best scenario would see the Oilers reducing his role, consigning him to one of the spare forward positions on the roster – a role he played for the Blackhawks in last year’s playoffs. The important thing is that they find someone else to fill that third line centre position, and that they do it before next season comes around.