To say that Matt Fraser’s 2011-12 season was a pleasant surprise would be a severe understatement. The power winger, undrafted and signed as a free agent by the Dallas Stars in the fall of 2010, scored an impressive 37 goals as a rookie for the AHL’s Texas Stars.
During his time in the WHL, Fraser was a key cog on the Kootenay Ice (including their WHL Championship team in 2010-11, along with Texas teammate Cody Eakin). Even at the WHL level, he didn’t reach the scoring level of last season (in fact, his career high in goals at the WHL level was 36).
What allowed him to make such a rapid transition from junior to professional hockey? Does he have top-six upside? How far away from NHL action is he?
Fraser posted back-to-back 30-goal seasons for Kootenay in 2009-10 and 2010-11. He earned a training camp invite with the Peoria Rivermen (the AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues), playing two games there in 2009-10. However, he failed to stick, and was passed over by all 30 clubs at more than one NHL Draft. Scoring and size have never been issues for the 6-2, 215 pound winger, but his skating and play away from the puck were question marks, and scared NHL teams away.
Dallas took a chance on him as a free agent, and they are on the verge of reaping the rewards of a shrewd signing. Fraser was second in the AHL in goal scoring last season, trailing only Cory Conacher, the Norfolk winger who won the League MVP trophy. And Fraser was leading the league in scoring until the last day of the season, when Conacher recorded a hat trick to leap past him.
Fraser’s rugged power forward game made him stand out in the WHL. He scored goals thanks to a heavy and accurate shot, and he intimidated opponents with his fists and hits. In the AHL, he has let his goal scoring do the talking. He is still a goal-scorer with some weaknesses to improve upon, but the Stars have to be extremely excited at his NHL future.
Stephen from 100 Degree Hockey concurs regarding his defensive play:
The obvious mark against him in this regard is defensive play. That was a problem for the entire Stars squad this season. The rookie did make huge strides in the back half of the season. At the end of December, he was at minus-11 but finished the season at minus-13 and even had a plus-6 month of March.
It is one thing to score 30+ goals as an overage player in the WHL. At 21, Fraser was physically dominant against 16 and 17-year-old opponents. But to do the same in the AHL, against physically developed and experienced professional hockey players? Fraser proved his scoring success in junior was a product of his ability.
Cody Nickolet (@WHLFromAbove) got to see a lot of Fraser during his career with the Kootenay Ice, and he took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Was Fraser's goal scoring explosion as a rookie pro a surprise?
I wouldn't exactly say it was a huge surprise, but I guess it was somewhat shocking. Fraser was a fantastic scorer at the WHL level, in his final year in the league he scored 36 goals in the regular season and added 17 more in 19 playoff games. So, in that sense it wasn't a shock because he can flat out snipe. The shocking part was just that he transitioned so smooth into the AHL. Most guys take at least a season or two to get their legs under themselves and be able to contribute at that next level, especially if they aren't considered top-end prospects.
He had back to back 30+ goal 100+ PIM seasons. Is he a pure power forward or more of a big skill guy?
He's a bit of a tough guy to classify. He's big, he's strong, he skates well, he can score, but he is also known as being pretty good defensively. I remember watching him some nights in the WHL and he would simply shut down the opposition as a checker. The next night he could score 3 goals. He's a fun player to watch, that I know for sure, especially for people who like big rugged, goal scoring forwards. I wouldn't exactly call him a power forward and to be honest I would've expected him to be more of a grinder as a pro, rather than a skill guy.
Does he have the skill to play in the top six for an NHL team?
If you asked me this 12 months ago, I would have definitely said no. But after his breakout year as a rookie pro, I'm not sure about that answer any more. His goal scoring obviously transferred well to the American league and he has the size to go along with it. I would still probably hesitate to call him a future top six guy, but he's impressed me before and definitely could do it again.
He is quite raw defensively. Is that something that will hold him back?
In watching him, I actually don't think he's that bad defensively. He's a gritty player, throws his weight around and was definitely an above-average defensive player at the WHL level. Sure, it might take time to adjust defensively against bigger, stronger and faster opposing players as a pro, but in the end I don't see this area of his game holding him back. He's smart enough that clearly the adjusting isn't taking too long.
Regardless of how Fraser’s career progresses, it has been quite a whirlwind year for an undrafted free agent. Only a few months after signing Fraser, Dallas also inked another undrafted WHL player - Seattle defenseman Brenden Dillon. Joe Nieuwendyk better make sure he is getting a nice Christmas present for the WHL scouts this winter.
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