Colin Fraser: A Fourth-Liner For All Teams

There are three former members of the Edmonton Oilers playing for Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup Finals that have received a lot of attention. Dustin Penner, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene are all depth players in L.A., but they play important roles and have significant value as NHL’ers.

Getting a lot less attention is a fourth ex-Oiler: Colin Fraser.

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This is the second time in three years that Fraser’s club has competed in the Stanley Cup Finals. In 2009-10, Fraser played 70 regular season games for Chicago but just three in the post-season as the Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The Oilers picked up Fraser for a sixth round pick* that summer. Coming off a 19 point season in 2009-10, and with an Oilers’ centre depth chart in desperate need of help, there were hopes that Fraser would carve out a significant role.

Of course we know what happened. Fraser played 67 games, scored three goals and five points, and finished with a minus-2 rating. He spent significant time on the penalty kill, but the penalty kill was terrible. He wasn’t good in the faceoff circle. He played a somewhat physical game, but he wasn’t really a huge banger. On the positive side, he did block shots.

Regardless, Fraser was a bit of a disappointment. When Steve Tambellini’s trade of Gilbert Brule and a fourth round draft pick for Ryan Smyth got quashed thanks to health concerns, Fraser and a seventh-rounder were substituted. And there was much rejoicing (at least in Edmonton).

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The interesting thing is that Colin Fraser has been almost exactly the same player in L.A. that he was in Edmonton, as this handy chart shows:

(I would have included RTSS stats like hits except that the NHL’s real-time statistics are basically useless. This is especially the case here, as L.A.’s scorer tends to over-count hits while the Oilers’ scorer undercounts them relative to league average.)

What we see here is a modestly talented NHL’er. In both cities he played on most nights – in L.A. getting an extra minute at even-strength, in Edmonton an extra minute on the penalty kill. He contributed minimal offense, got outshot by a reasonable amount for a fourth-line player starting a decent amount in his own end, and lost more faceoffs than he won. In both cities he played mostly against the other team’s fourth line.

Yet, he couldn’t play in Edmonton, the worst team in the NHL. Now, he’s a single game away from winning the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles, and he’s being praised in the media by his coach:

“I don’t call them our fourth line. I call it Colin Fraser and whoever is playing with him. If they’re on, they can play against anybody.”

The player is absolutely no different. The difference is the team around him.

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It’s a caution against looking at players through the lens of the team they play for. All Los Angeles needs from Fraser is for him to play a defensively responsible game and play physically. Maybe he takes the odd shift on the penalty kill and sees a bit more time in his own zone than the offensive zone. He fills that role satisfactorily; he’s not more than a legitimate fourth-liner, but in L.A. he doesn’t have to be.

In Edmonton, so much was wrong with the team that it was easy to include Fraser as part of the problem (and in the case of the penalty kill, perhaps he was). Certainly, the Oilers didn’t lose a lot when he left town. On the other hand, he’s (almost) proven that a team using him in nearly the same role can win it all.

It’s easy to say, ‘Look at Player X – on a good team he’d be way down the depth chart.’ Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it isn’t. Terrible teams, after all, tend to have people playing in positions they aren’t really up to handling. On the other hand, a perfectly serviceable depth guy can look completely lost on a bad team, even though he remains as much an NHL’er as he ever was.

Fraser’s not the only example. The Oilers brought in another part of that Chicago Cup team, Ben Eager, to help solidify the bottom six this year. Many have critiqued his performance; the reality is that Eager was almost exactly the same player in Edmonton as he’s been everywhere else.

If the Oilers improve, the personnel on the third and fourth lines will start looking better.

*For those interested, the Blackhawks used that pick on Mirko Hoefflin. Hoefflin’s failed to progress in two QMJHL seasons, and is headed back to Germany next year; he’s young but he’s not really an NHL prospect of interest at this point and if he does have a career it likely won’t be with the team that drafted him.

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Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Somehow I don’t get the feeling athlete accountability is as high in Edmonton as it is on teams that consider “winning” a priority. It may be why we get so many sloppy performances from guys who seemingly play better when they leave/get traded for fairy dust and magic beans (See Penner, Dustin).

  • The Farmer

    This proves that truly elite teams are made up of truly elite players, and then you fill in the spare parts with a few of the thousands of players world wide who can fill your fourth line and third pairing. Oilers please please please don’t trade your impact player (Yakupov) for filler.

  • Zed

    I think it would be fair to say that if we looked at the paycheck of every individual employed by the Edmonton Oilers, the responsibilty of the Oiler’s woes would be directly proportional to the amount of that paycheck.

    Colin Fraser wouldn’t even be top 30.

  • Zed

    I think it shows how unimportant 4th line players truly are. They are there to eat some icetime and hopefully not get scored against too badly. Fans who complain constantly about 4th line players (and to a lesser extent 3rd pairing d-men) are missing the forest for the trees. You win consistently based on the play of your top 9 forwards, top 4 d-men and your starting goalie.

    Having good guys on the 4th line is a luxury as is a really solid 6th defenceman. Good teams make it work with servicable players filling in around the top end talent.

    • I tend to agree that the fourth line rarely makes a substantial difference (unless they’re truly bad or truly great) but I disagree on third-pairing defenders.

      They get as much ice-time as a third-line forward, and sometimes more.

  • T__Bone88

    Problem with depth players is that most need to find a niche on certain teams to be effective. Ryan Jones is an example, waived by a decent team in Nashville playing 3/4th line minutes comes to Edmonton and does good playing same role.

    Just noticed if Kings win the cup Ethan Moreau won’t be included. He only played 28 games for them this year with the minimum being 41 games to be included in cup win…Ouch.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Colin Fraser was never the issue here. The problem was having Cogliano, gagner and horcoff as the only 3 guys that were better than him.

    Who’s Jersey’s #4 guy or the Rangers or PHO? These are generally small minute players that shouldn’t be talked about.

  • Rose Colored Glasses

    Its amazing when your top players are playing up to par or over that there is no pressure on a 4th line player.

    We disect every damn player on the oilers but forget it is a team sport and chemistry is a funny thing.

    Hell of run Kings, well deserved!!!

  • stevezie

    I think Jonathan’s point is impossible to refute, but I would add that most really good teams have a few guys playing in roles that are below their capabilities. Sure the Devils are losing now, but they made it to the finals and one of the reasons is an overqualified 4th line. Eager might not be the problem in Edmonton, but replacing him with a better player looks like part of the solution.

    Not that 4th lines are suddenly so important that Gaustad is suddenly worth a 1st. I still can’t get over that.

  • stevezie

    “Deal went Williams to LA for POS & 2nd, and then carolina traded POS & 2nd to Edm for Cole”

    “POS” i see what you did there… that merits you a slow clap.

  • Rose Colored Glasses

    I don’t know about that. Look at Brule in Phoenix.

    When this happens to many players in different years, you have to look at coaching.

    Maybe next year our new coach will use the 3rd and 4th lines properly and hand out ice time for good play and not for NHL games played.

  • Rose Colored Glasses

    This is a great point and I’m glad someone finally pointed it out. I’m glad you mentioned Ben Eager because he gave us exactly what he gave other teams in terms of points. We keep going wrong by picking up these players with expectations they’ll do better here in Edmonton on an overall worse team.

    I kind of feel like Ryan Smyth got the same treatment. Did he get his obligatory 20+ goals? no but he got damn close. And he was old sea legs in front of the net all year long.

    Hell, add Ryan Jones to this list as well. For how he was played, and how much he’s payed, tell me another player that had as many or points, that makes less money, with the same amount of ice time. I doubt you can find one in the entire NHL.

    What I can’t figure out if it’s the media or the management. Are sites like this bumping up expectations for fans, or is the management banking on suddenly better performances (Cam Barker, Eric Cole, Lupel, O’Sullivan, Kotilyk)

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    @ Russ

    Brule was a healthy scratch who was only made known of because of a couple key goals. His numbers during the regular season weren’t exactly any better than they were here. Same goes for Fraser.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    True third pairing D-men are slightly more important than your 4th line but ideally they should be getting sheltered minutes, maybe sometime on the PK or PP if they are specialists.

    I find too many people get upset about depth players, the guys filling in these holes and tend to give a pass to the guys playing higher up the depth chart. You need your top 4 to be solid contributors so that you dont have to worry if your 5,6,7 d-men are just adequate guys.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Kudos to you. You found a potential story, said you’d come up with something and I found it interesting.

    I had no opinion on Fraser. I liked his size. Don’t know if he brought much else to the team. I too like that you mentioned Eager. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does with a new coach. I believe given the opportunity he can bring a lot more to the team than he did this past season.

    Dumped players can always come back to haunt you. Off hand I recall Jason Smith and Craig Muni as being prime examples. Now it seems to be happening to the Oilers more than the other way around. I guess that goes to the Professional Scouting.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    If Hemsky and Horcoff scored more goals , then you would not need to count on guys like Eager and Fraser to put up more points.
    Fourth line players however, do have important roles in the play offs, when there are more overtime games, hot arenas, and cross country travel. They have to be strong defensively for this reason, and can chip in the odd goal.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Prime historic examples (other than Smith & Muni who were already mentioned) are Kevin McClelland & Marty McSorley. They couldn’t play for a terrible Penguins team, yet were key cogs in the Oilers dynasty run. Ah, the glory days…