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IN DEPTH: Matt Fraser

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
EDMONTON, AB- People say he’s got a wicked shot. But Matt Fraser’s first goal with the Oilers may not have been what they meant by that.

Fraser, from behind Calgary’s net, banked a shot off the back of the Flames goaltender Jonas Hiller and in for the crafty score. That was New Year’s Eve, a mere two days after the Oilers claimed the winger off waivers from Boston.

“I talk about being an impact player, whether it’s being physical or scoring a goal,” Fraser said. “You’ve got to do something to elevate your game and bring it to the next level.”

Fraser, 24, has been with the Oilers for only days but in talking to him it’s clear he’s got the kind of attitude it takes to become what he wants to be.

“I want to be a guy that is a difference maker.”

WINNING WAYS

Fraser learned what it takes to win at a young age. The forward progressed offensively in each of his seasons with the Kootenay Ice, going from nine and then 10 goals in his first two years with the club to 32 in year three.

That set Fraser up for a fourth season that he will never forget. Throughout the 2010-11 campaign, Fraser was what he has always wanted to be— an impact player.

Fraser scored 36 goals and added 38 assists for WHL career highs. But the personal strides paled in comparison to what his team accomplished that year.

Photo by Getty Images

Kootenay entered the 2011 playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They beat Moose Jaw four games to two, advancing to the next round where they surprised everyone by sweeping top-seeded Saskatoon.

“I don’t know if we were necessarily the best team going in but we certainly played like the best team,” Fraser said. “Everyone had a role and everyone played to it and that’s often times what makes teams so successful. It taught me a lot about myself, but mostly about the guy I was on the team.”

Fraser and Kootenay continued to roll, sweeping Medicine Hat in the Conference Finals and then cruising past Portland 4-1 to win the WHL Championship.

Fraser tied for second in playoff scoring with 27 points (17-10-27) in 19 games.

“It’s definitely exciting to be a part of that and to be a part of those high-pressure, exciting games. You certainly find out the true colours of the type of player you are and the impact you bring here to the team. There is a lot on the line. Everyone says the best players come to play in those times.”

Winning a championship creates bonds that can last a lifetime, something Fraser relishes.

“A lot of times you have these close connections with guys after you win and all of the sudden a guy gets traded and you never hear from them for a long time,” Fraser said. “I can honestly say that I talk to a lot of those guys today just about life in general, what they’re doing and how things are going for everybody. It’s exciting. It’s something that I still think about to this day and enjoy hearing about it and talking about it with those guys.”

With a major accomplishment in his junior hockey career complete, Fraser would set his sights on the pros.

HECK OF A SHOT

Fraser jumped right into full-time American Hockey League duty with a bang. His very first game with the Texas Stars, Dallas’ affiliate, came against the Oilers farm team. Fraser scored two goals and added an assist and five shots against the Oklahoma City Barons. The Barons would become very familiar with Fraser during his career with Texas.

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

That season, Fraser scored 37 goals and 18 assists for 55 points in 73 games. A solid start for a prospect who had went undrafted. From the outside looking in, it seemed like Fraser was making the transition to the AHL look easy but he says that’s not the case.

“I don’t want to say I had an easy adjustment because it certainly was an eyeopener,” Fraser said. “The biggest thing for me was just adjusting to life outside of hockey, cooking your own meals and adjusting to life not having a curfew and making sure you’re prepared to play, preparing your body and making sure life is still happing outside the rink. The team we had in Austin, Texas was such a close-knit group, which made it an easy transition going from junior to pro because I did know quite a few guys on that team. The biggest thing for me was just making sure you come to the rink every day prepared to work hard, prepared to play and that you’re taking advantage of the possibilities that you could be.”

A great shot was also a reason for the quick production. It’s something Fraser has worked on all his career.

“It’s something that I’ve always practiced on, it’s something that I take pride in,” Fraser said. “In this league nowadays there is not just one thing that gets you this far. You can’t be just a one dimensional player, but you definitely have to play to your strengths. I think shooting the puck is one of my strengths and something I do work on. It’s something I take pride in and when the puck is on my stick, I’m looking to get it off as fast as I can and as hard as I can.”

He does just fine with that. Just ask Luke Gazdic. The Oilers winger was a teammate of Fraser’s in Texas.

“He’s got a heck of a shot,” Gazdic said. “I think that’s the tool that has helped him the most. He scored 40 goals in the minors one of the years I played with him. He can score from anywhere, he’s lethal. He does it all, he finishes his checks, he’s not afraid to mix it up and he does a lot of things that can be useful for any team, especially ours.”

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

The piling up of goals in his first season with Texas earned Fraser one game in Dallas. Then 46 points, including 33 goals, in 62 games in 2012-13 earned him 12 more. The NHL was beginning to take notice of Fraser and his shot. In true Matt Fraser style, he scored his first NHL goal in the first game of his call-up that season, on February 12, 2013.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” Fraser said. “It’s something I wish every kid could experience. It’s a relieving feeling having scored that because it’s off your back and that’s one thing that no one can ever take from you. You ask any guy playing hockey or playing in the NHL and everyone remembers their first goal. It’s something no one can ever take from you, having scored at least one in the NHL, and that’s something that’s pretty special.”

Fraser’s time in Texas put the Oilers on notice. In 19 regular season games against the OKC Barons with the Stars affiliate, Fraser scored 11 goals.

“He’s a guy that can shoot the puck,” said Oilers interim coach Todd Nelson, who coached against Fraser in OKC. “I’ve seen it first hand when we used to play against Texas and he’s scored his fair share of goals against us.”

Gazdic added, “Nelly is pretty familiar with both of us. We had some good battles with OKC down there and I’m sure he’s glad to have Fraser on his side of the bench now rather than have to play against him because he’s a lethal scorer. He can put the puck in from anywhere and he torched OKC down there a couple of times.”

The Oilers watched Fraser’s progression in the minors progress quite closely.

“Our guys have had a lot of interest in Matt over the years,” Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish said. “He’s had some success against Todd that’s been well-documented over the last 16 hours or so. I remember when I was coaching in the American Hockey League and he was playing in Texas, he had success against us too. He gives us an element that we don’t have in abundance and that’s a shot. We’ll see if he can get some traction here.”

Apparently, another NHL club was also watching. On July 4, 2013, Fraser was involved in a blockbuster trade that had Dallas send him, Reilly Smith, Joe Morrow and Loui Eriksson to Boston, in exchange for Tyler Seguin, Ryan Button and Rich Peverley.

“Everyone refers to it as the Tyler Seguin trade, but I like to refer to it as the Matt Fraser trade just to kind of make a joke about it,” Fraser said.

All jokes aside, Fraser was shipping off to Boston.

QUITE THE DEBUT, KID

As an undrafted kid, it would have been easy for Fraser to phone it in. But he was not satisfied with being a WHL Champion. What Fraser really wanted to do was make it to the NHL and, even more than that, make an impact.

Photo by Getty Images

“I’ve never been a guy that was just happy to be somewhere,” Fraser said. “I’ve said from day one, since I started playing junior, that I wanted to be a guy that every time I stepped on the ice I was an impact player. I want to be a guy that not only the other team notices, but my team and the fans notice and see that he’s bringing something tonight. Maybe you’re not scoring or the bounces aren’t going your way but there’s no excuse for not having effort and there’s no excuse for not bringing work ethic every day. That’s something I’ve kept close to me to make it this far because I’ve had to. I was undrafted and it’s easier to stop playing than keep going. You have to find something inside yourself to motivate yourself every night and when things aren’t going well.”

Fraser needed little motivation to make an impact on the Bruins. Although he spent the majority of the 2013-14 season back in the minors (44 games in Providence), Fraser was given 14 regular season games to show his stuff in Boston. He scored two goals for the Bruins and would eventually suit up in four playoff games.

Again, in true Fraser style, the young winger scored in his first NHL playoff game. It just so happened to also be the overtime winner, on the road in one of the most passionate, hockey-hungry buildings in the NHL— the Bell Centre in Montreal.

Fraser tracked the puck behind the Canadiens net, battling for it before sending a quick centring pass out in front for Carl Soderberg. A shot forced Carey Price to sprawl and he lost the puck in the process. The then 23-year-old Fraser took advantage of the scramble, poking the rebound past the goaltender for the sweet taste of victory in game four of the series, on May 8, 2014.

“It was pretty exciting just to be in that lineup and to experience the NHL playoffs like that in the Bell Centre and it was pretty special,” Fraser said. “You never know when they call you up if you’re playing or not or what’s going on. It was exciting scoring that goal for sure. It was something that I’ll never forget and something I wish every kid growing up playing hockey could experience.”

Unfortunately for Fraser, his time in Boston after that series would be short-lived. But when one door closes, another opens.

COMING HOME

After 24 games and three goals this season, the Bruins placed Fraser on waivers

“He just hasn’t been able to fit into the right lineups here,” said Gazdic, who spoke to his good friend after the news. “Boston is a tough situation too. I don’t think they’re in a playoff spot right now but they have a heck of a roster. To become a regular and play in the top nine on a team like the Bruins is not an easy thing to do. But I think he can be a helpful player for us for sure. He’s a natural goal scorer, he can do it from anywhere. He’s a good teammate, he’ll do anything to help the team win and that’s what we’re looking for in our lineup right now.”

The Oilers claimed him, giving the Red Deer, AB native a fresh shot with the near-hometown team.

“Being from Red Deer, you grow up watching the Oilers and Flames. You’re almost immersed in that Battle of Alberta. To be able to go there and be a part of it is certainly exciting,” Fraser said.

What also makes this opportunity an exciting one for Fraser is that he’s come into a locker room with familiar faces. Gazdic is someone Fraser lived next door to and became good friends with. Nelson is a coach Fraser has seen many times in his career and he’s very familiar with those who have played in Oklahoma City.

“It’s certainly nice. It’s nice to come in and have that familiarity and know the familiar face there again,” Fraser said. “It’s nice to be back in the Western Conference and be close to home. Having played against Todd Nelson and some of those guys, it certainly helps to know you’re not walking in all alone. It gives you a little bit more confidence.”

The familiarity is comforting, as is knowing a team wants you.

“First and foremost, it was just nice to have the opportunity to be claimed by someone,” he said. “To be put on waivers is not a great feeling and no one likes that feeling. But, at the end of the day, the Oilers took a chance with me and I’m certainly excited about it and excited about the opportunity.”

SHOWING MATURITY & MAKING AN IMPACT

Hard-nosed and hardworking, Fraser brings elements that NHL clubs want in a player. He comes with a willingness to go to the hard areas and an understanding that greasy goals score the same as the pretty ones. He’ll stick up for his teammates and he has that aforementioned shot. Those are the things Fraser is looking to bring to his new club.

“I’m a guy who likes to shoot the puck,” Fraser said. “I like shooting the puck, I like getting in the spots to shoot the puck and that’s something that I pride myself on, is when the puck is on my stick it’s coming off quick and it’s coming off hard. I take pride in making sure it finds the back of the net. I think in being a part of the Boston organization I really learned to play all three zones and not just play them but be effective in them. I know my routes, I know my job and I make sure I’m not a liability on the ice. For me, it’s just about making sure I find those areas to put the puck in the back of the net and get to those dirty areas to make those plays.”

Photo by Getty Images

It’s Fraser’s blue collar philosophy and approach to the game that shines the most when you talk to him. He understands what type of player he is and how he’s gotten to the NHL. With him, it’s a constant process of fine-tuning that as he continues to develop.

“As soon as you kind of become stagnant, complacent or flatline in this league is when you get in trouble,” Fraser said. “For myself, I’ve never had the opportunity to allow myself to do that because I wasn’t drafted, I wasn’t a high-profile guy. For me, when you show up to the rink everyday, you bring your lunch pail and your hard hat and you make sure you’re ready to work as hard as you can at everything and you do it. That’s kind of been engrained in me ever since I was a little kid and it’s something that I try to bring to the rink everyday.”

For a young player, Fraser also comes with a maturity and an understanding of the situation his new team is in. He’s also determined to help the boys in blue and orange in any way he can. It starts with a winning attitude he learned in junior and refined in Boston.

“Things haven’t been great for them but for me as a player I want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Fraser said. “That’s something where I want to show the management, show the players and show everyone that I want to be a guy that’s going to come in, work hard in all three zones and be a guy that can be relied upon to get the job done. You kind of hear bits and pieces of what’s going on but when it comes down to it, you’re not there to experience it. I’m excited to get there, get settled and get on the ice. That’s where I’m most comfortable to be a part of it. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

In just his second game with the Oilers, Fraser scored his first goal with the club. Unfortunately, the celebrations were short with Calgary getting the 4-3 overtime win. But perhaps the goal was not the most encouraging thing to come from Fraser that night. His attitude towards the loss was one you’d come to expect from a leader. They were strong words from someone who had been in the locker room just a few short days.

“I think this team is pretty fragile right now,” Fraser said. “I heard it a long time ago that losing can be contagious. Part of that, being a new guy in here and coming from an organization like Boston is you’ve got to bring that element of your game where you’re not content with losing. Often times, when you lose a game, you can just kind of let it go and onto the next one. I’ll probably be the first to admit that this organization or the team has kind of gotten into that. For myself, you’ve got to bring something every night so they can see I want to be a guy that is a difference maker.”

With the Oilers, he has an opportunity to take that role and run with it. Any player can step up and make an impact. It’s on him to do it.

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