It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Matt Fraser has an affinity for scoring goals at every level of hockey.
After back-to-back, 30-plus goal seasons in the WHL, the Red Deer, Alberta-native repeated that feat in his first two years in the American Hockey League with the Texas Stars. Heading into his NHL playoff debut on Thursday, Fraser had found twine 98 times between the regular season and playoffs during his three years in the pros.
Odds are high that none that came before or after will be as memorable as No. 99 was.
The 23-year-old winger backhanded the overtime game-winner past Carey Price, giving Boston a 1-0 win up in Montreal in Game 4 to tie the series up at two games apiece.
“I wish I could explain to you what that feeling was like,” said Fraser, acquired last summer in the deal that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas. “All I remember is (Johnny) Boychuk was kissing my cheek and all I could feel was his whiskers rubbing against my face. It’s stuff like that you remember. It was just exciting to be a part of that.”
Fraser’s presence in the lineup caught many by surprise, as he was promoted from Providence Thursday morning, with Justin Florek heading back down to the P-Bruins. This certainly isn’t the first time Fraser’s snuck up on people.
The 6-foot-2 forward scored just 19 times in his first 134 games in the Western Hockey League and went undrafted. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2009-10, scoring 32 times in 65 contests for Kootenay.
“Call it the ‘late-bloomer’ theory or what have you. Some players don’t put it all together until later on in their amateur/major junior careers,” said Kirk Luedeke, a regional scout for Red Line Report and prospects writer for New England Hockey Journal. “As an older player, he enjoyed a bigger role with power-play time, while growing and developing as a scoring forward. It all goes to show you why some ‘can’t-miss’ kids at 18 do just that in the NHL, while others not even on the radar at 18 go on to score crucial overtime goals in the NHL playoffs.”
During his final season with Kootenay, Fraser was otherworldly in the postseason and led the Ice to the WHL championship. He scored 17 goals and added 10 assists in 19 games that spring. Six of those points came during Kootenay’s five games in the Memorial Cup, where they fell in the semifinals to Mississauga.
“That was a good Kootenay Ice team that rode his hot hand, but they also got a great performance in net from (Sabres prospect) Nathan Lieuwen,” Luedeke said. “They had a balanced roster with Fraser obviously playing an important role, but the thing to understand is that he built a reputation for being a go-to scorer that spring, one he added to with two 30-plus goal AHL seasons with Texas.”
In his first season with Providence, Fraser posted 20-10-30 totals in 44 contests, once again averaging nearly half-a-goal per game at the AHL level. He earned a 14-game stint with the big club that concluded in January, scoring two goals for Boston.
Coach Claude Julien said Fraser’s made strides since that time.
“This is a guy if you give him the opportunity, he can certainly put the puck in the net,” Boston’s coach said on Friday. “He’s gotten strong and he’s played a bigger game than he had in the past and those are the improvements you look for in young players. … He just had to improve in certain areas.”
“He still needs to get a little quicker in his initial first steps & short area burst, because his best potential is as a top-three line winger and power-play guy,” Luedeke said. “That’s a tough sell with Boston’s veteran-laden roster of forwards, so the added speed is important for him to effectively play that puck-possession style that Claude Julien favors. He’s getting there, and he has the hands and hockey sense that remind me of a poor man’s Dave Andreychuk.”
“It was one game, but he and Soderberg create matchup problems because they’re not only heavy on the puck, but are big, strong, and skilled enough to take it to the net and finish in close,” said Luedeke. “We’re still waiting for Loui Eriksson to get more production going, but Fraser is more talented offensively than either of Jordan Caron or Justin Florek.
“Fraser will go stretches where he doesn’t seem to be doing much, but then you also saw how he can end a game in an instant because he’s such an instinctive finisher. At the moment of truth, he didn’t get the yips; he just got his stick on the loose puck and put it behind Carey Price. Sometimes less is more, and some of the Bruins veterans could learn a thing or two from Fraser about making the simple play under pressure.”
So why didn’t we see the cool-under-pressure, clutch goal-scorer sooner in these playoffs, or more often during the regular season?
“I think he’d have played more on some other clubs, yes, but he’s still a work in progress,” Luedeke said. “Boston has some decisions to make this offseason because Fraser will have to go on waivers to be sent down to Providence next season, and he’s not going to clear, period. Where he goes from here will be interesting, but for one magical night, Cinderella put that glass slipper on in a perfect fit. It’s up to Fraser to build on that and force Boston management to re-sign him and find a place for him next year. Otherwise, he might provide some enticing trade bait. We’ll see.”
While his long-term future with the organization is uncertain, Fraser’s focused on doing what he can now, building off his magic moment in Game 4 and hopefully carving out a permanent spot in the lineup going forward.
“The biggest thing is you don’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” Fraser said. “You want to be a guy who wants to contribute every night and brings something to the lineup. [At] the pregame skate, when the coaches wonder who they should put in, they can look at me and know that I can do my part and get the job done.”