That Eakins post-game had way, way, way too much love for Fraser for my liking. If they re-up this guy, … fuck it, you know they will.— Romulus' Apotheosis (@RomulusNotNuma) March 7, 2014
On the last day of the first month of this year, the Oilers acquired the growling mass that is Mark Fraser from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The cost wasn't dear. The Oilers sent away ECHL scrapper and 2009 3rd round draft blunder Cam Abney (an exorcism of a 50-man roster spot) alongside the NHL rights to Teemu Hartikainen, currently playing in the KHL. Both players seemed far removed from the future plans of new GM Craig MacTavish (though many, including myself held out hope for a Hartikainen future).
Now, Mark Fraser is not good at hockey. Outside of a pretty good 2010-2011 season, he's struggled mightily in a 3rd pairing role.
The Oilers ostensibly acquired Fraser to fill the void in the "growl" department (players with myriad skating, passing and decision making issues) on the Blue.
Rough cutters on the back end have been a staple for recent Tambellini constructed Oiler teams. The 2012-2013 season boasted Theo Peckham and Mark Fistric; 2011-2012 Peckham and Sutton; 2010-2011 Peckham and Vandermeer. This year, after cutting ties with Peckham and failing to come to terms with Mark Fistric, the Oilers started the year without a "heavy" blue (unless you count Ladi Smid as one).
With all their talk of puck possession and movement, size with skill, etc., over the the Summer, one was left to wonder if MacTavish and Eakins had abandoned the franchise's attachment to this type of player. Indeed, there is some evidence that Eakins and MacTavish were re-paying their words with actions.
If we look at last year's even strength TOI/60 (a handy tool to see who the coach relies upon the most), we can see that Ralph Krueger relied fairly heavily on players no one would confuse with "puck movers." Smid, Nick Schultz and Peckham (in his limited games) all play significant minutes at even strength.
This year, Eakins hasn't shown the same confidence in rugged, stay-at-home defenders. Both Smid (before being traded) and Nick Schultz (now also traded) saw their even-strength ice time shaved by almost two full minutes a game. And, players with serious defensive flaws but in possession of speed and puck moving ability, i.e., Justin Schultz and Philip Larsen, are receiving the lion's share of the even-strength ice time. In the following ordinal list, you have to make it all the way down to 7th and 8th (Smid and Nick Schultz) before you hit upon a defender who lacks puck moving ability.
Beyond this evidence, the Ladislav Smid trade, made just 17 games into a brand new 4 year contract, would also seem to suggest MacTavish and Eakins are ushering in a new era of roster construction on the Blue.
With this context in mind, what's going on with Mark Fraser? What does his addition to the roster and near continuous play since (Fraser was scratched once, Feb. 27th, in favor of Eakins' current doghouse occupant Anton Belov) tell us about Blue roster construction going forward?
For context, we can turn to ubiquitous Oilers' scribe Jim Matheson. Despite the fact that MacTavish declined the services of Peckham and Fistric and did not seek to replace their player type at the season's outset, Matheson has repeatedly suggested the Oilers are in the hunt for a rough-and-ready heavy on the Blue. Here he is mentioning Pittsburgh Penguin's defenseman, Deryk Engelland, four times in the span of a month.
Finnish defenceman Olli Maatta’s two-way game has made things uncomfortable in Pittsburgh for Matt Niskanen and the tougher Deryk Engelland, who is most likely to be traded. I still think Engelland would be perfect in Edmonton, but what do you give up for a No. 6 blueliner? A poor man’s Don Jackson.
The Oilers would seem to have a bigger need for a third-pairing abrasive type (again, we come back to Deryk Engelland, making $575,000, UFA in July) than a fourth-line scrapper now that they have a little wiggle room with only 48 contracts, not 49.
The Pittsburgh Penguins made a push to sign free-agent Boyd Gordon this past summer, but the price-point ($3 million) and term (four years) was way too rich for them. This summer, they’ll likely lose tough defenceman Deryk Engelland to free agency. The Edmonton native has had several teams, including the Oilers, sniffing around him. "He can be a No. 6. He’s the kind of guy every team needs. He can play enough minutes and he can really fight," a scout said.
And, finally, here he is more recently steering MacTavish's eyes toward ex-Oiler and current King Matt Greene.
Looking at the roster as constructed at the start of the season, Eakins' ice time deployments and finally the Smid trade, I felt somewhat comfortable dismissing Matheson's reporting ("The Edmonton Oilers are looking for a third pairing defenceman with some muscle and/or meanness.") as so much projection and wishful thinking. He certainly wouldn't be the only Oiler media personality to crave truculence, physicality, name-your-own-euphemism.
And then, MacTavish traded for Mark Fraser, Eakins praised his growl and hasn't stopped playing him since. At the time of the trade, Fraser gave his own assessment of what he brings:
"I'm confident I can provide something the Oilers may be missing... Most of my success comes from my size and aggression."
Last night, Fraser had arguably his best game as an Oiler. Bruce McCurdy at the Cult of Hockey graded him a 5 (out of 10):
#5 Mark Fraser, 5. On the one hand the puck spent a lot of time in Oilers’ end when Fraser was out there, both by eye and by shot share (just 28% of all shot attempts were by the Oilers on his watch). On the other, he provided a nasty physical presence throughout, most notably in the third period, that helped to turn the tide.
Previously, he had received two 2s, a 3 and three 4s. Eakins' was also impressed with Fraser's play. In his post-game press conference, he had this to say about him:
Well, I tell you, he was playing hard. He was… that's what Mark does. Mark's gonna clear the net. He doesn't take kindly to people taking any kind of, uh, coming near our net, making any kind of contact with our goalies, he doesn't like anybody making any kind of contact with our other players, uh, he's a real stand up guy, he's a good character guy and he's mean. So, I thought he played a hell of a game. And, uh, something that we needed on our back-end. And, he's come in and filled the role very well.
There's a check list of old-school hockey euphemisms for "bad at hockey but we think his intangibles make up for it" that we can go through.
Clears the net √
Protects other players √
He's a character guy √
He's mean √
And, it's clear from Eakins' subsequent remarks that he sees a lot of value in adding these attributes to his roster.
Now, this line of thought runs in contra-distinction to the current, new-wave of thinking on Blue roster construction. Occasioned by the recent Douglas Murray for Raphael Diaz trade, smart folks have been taking a 3-pound hammer to some rather persistent blue-line narratives.
As noted above, MacTavish and Eakins seem, to some non-trivial degree, to buy-in to the new-wave of thinking. By and large, the roster prefers players with some jumble of speed, passing, puck moving abilities over players with toughness, edge and heaviness.
So, what's the take away? What are we going to see next year?
As I wrote recently, the disconnect here speaks to a kind of watershed moment in hockey. Transitions aren't neat and tidy. They take time and work by fits and starts. Hockey thinking, as embodied by MacTavish and Eakins, represents the divided mind of the hockey times. The new thinking and the old narratives are awkwardly co-existing within many hockey decision makers.
Going forward, I would expect the roster to employ 5 mobile puck movers and a single rough-houser. Gone are the days of Smid and Nick Schultz taking up a roster spot and significant ice time. The core defensive group is probably going to look more like Petry than Smid. The prospects in the system will probably fit this mould too. However, for the time being at least, it sure looks like at least one permanent, everyday roster spot is going to be reserved for a fighter on the back end.