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.
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).
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.
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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