In 24 hours Red Deer forward Matt Fraser went from a potential ticket to the minors to a fresh start in Edmonton.
The rugged left winger was put on waivers by the Boston Bruins on Monday, but was claimed by the Oilers while he was eating his pre-game meal with teammates as they prepared to play the Detroit Red Wings.
While the Bruins were beating Detroit 5-2, the six-foot-one, 204-pound Fraser was on the next flight to Alberta, preparing to join a team that sits dead last in the NHL and will likely miss the playoffs for a ninth straight season.
But it could wind up being the best thing in the world for Fraser, 24, as the Oilers have a dearth of young players that play with an edge and know what it takes to win at this level.
“I’m excited to be back on home soil and to just really enjoy myself and go out there and play,” he said. “I know this Oilers team, people have different opinions about it, but when it comes down to it what matters most is how those 22 players feel in the dressing room, how management feels and how the coaches feel and I think everyone is excited about the changes that are happening. As a team you’ve got to rally around one another and bring it every night.”
Fraser has, to this point of his career, been stuck with a tweener label. An all-star in the American Hockey League, but maybe not good enough to be a regular in the NHL.
He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Dallas Stars after four solid seasons in the WHL, first with his home town Red Deer Rebels but mostly with the Kootenay Ice, completed with a league championship in 2011 in which he scored a playoff-high 15 goals and was named the WHL’s humanitarian of the year.
He only had a couple of opportunities with the Stars over the next two seasons but he tore it up with their AHL affiliate — the Texas Stars — scoring 101 points (70 goals, 31 assists) in 133 games. The next off-season he was dealt to Boston in the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to the Stars.
Though Fraser only got into 14 games with the Bruins during the regular season — he scored 30 points (20-10-30) in 44 games with the AHL’s Providence Bruins — he made his mark in a playoff call up, scoring in overtime in Game 3 of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens.
This year he was hoping to make his break through in Beantown after signing a one-year $625,000 contract with the club.
But he found himself buried on the depth chart in an organization with a glut of left-handed wingers. In 24 games he scored just three goals with seven penalty minutes.
It was a frustrating end to his time in Boston.
“It’s not an easy thing to go through and for a team to tell you they’re putting you on waivers, it’s not fun, but that’s what we sign up for and that’s part of the job,” said Fraser. “The funny thing about this business — no one likes to look at it this way — we’re all interchangeable parts and everyone is looking to upgrade, especially on teams that are struggling.”
He now joins a club that sits last in the NHL despite a bevy of high draft picks in the last eight seasons. The Oilers fired head coach Dallas Eakins two weeks ago, bringing in new bench boss Todd Nelson from the Oklahoma City Barons.
They also traded for veteran centreman Derek Roy from the Nashville Predators on Monday afternoon.
The Oilers are desperate for the kind of grit that has been Fraser’s calling card, and he will be given every opportunity in Edmonton to sink or swim.
Fraser lined up on the left wing for Tuesday night’s game against the L.A. Kings with rookie Leon Draistail at centre and veteran forward David Perron on right wing.
“On a team that hasn’t had much success in the last few years,” said Fraser, “you’ve got to bring an element of your game into the dressing room and on to the ice so the coaches and the management, and even your teammates, can see that this is a guy that wants to be here, this is a guy that wants to win and wants to change the culture of this dressing room.”
He got a full dose of a winning culture in Boston. For the Bruins it was all about self sacrifice, especially among their top players like Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and Milan Lucic
“These guys all have their individual awards … but it’s more important to them how the team plays and how the team is producing,” said Fraser. “Those guys, without even batting an eye, would give up their own personal success for the success of the team.”
Edmonton is just about as close to home as he can play in the NHL. He was born and raised in Red Deer, playing all of his minor hockey here and was a ninth round draft pick of the Rebels in the 2005 WHL bantam draft. But he only played eight games for the club before he was dealt to the Ice.
He is well aware of all the extra pressures that come with playing so close to home, but there is little doubt where his mind is at.
“My job and my focus is winning hockey games here and being a part of this team,” said Fraser, who was a Colorado Avalanche and Joe Sakic fan growing up — his parents were Oilers fans. “It’s nice to be close to home and have that comfort, but at the end of the day, the guys in the dressing room are my family and those are the guys you need to make sure you’re included with and make sure you’re a part of the team, not just a guy who floats in and out.”