On the heels of looking at Jay McClement and his worth to the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs, I began to think of another first year member of the blue and white that has become a solid contributor for Randy Carlyle. 26 year old defenseman Mark Fraser was an unknown asset prior to beginning the season with the Leafs. While he was a member of the Toronto Marlies 2012 Calder Cup run, and a strong presence with the Leafs farm club during the lockout earlier this season, many didn’t envision him being anything more than filler to the Leafs organization. There is no denying that Fraser was looked upon to provide defensive stability and sandpaper to the team that plays at the Ricoh Colliseum, but nobody expected Fraser to be doing the same for the boys at the Air Canada Center.
Since breaking camp with the Leafs Fraser has demonstrated an ability to clear the front of the net and hold the opposition accountable when necessary. I am not a big proponent of the 4th line heavyweight, I do think though that there is a place for fighting in hockey and that Fraser embodies that role for the Leafs. A giant of a man at 6’4″ and 200 pounds, Fraser has proven he is not afraid to drop the gloves if he feels someone is taking liberties with his teammates. Unlike pugilists Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, Fraser is not a one dimensional fighter he also is a useful member of the Leafs blueline.
Many people may not like to hear this, but the Leafs blueline has struggled all season. Currently sitting 27th overall as they allow 31.7 shots against per game, the all around play of the defense corps has been victimized night after night. Mark Fraser deserves his fair share of that blame too. Having played 36 of the Leafs’ 39 games this season, Fraser has had difficulty keeping up with speedy forwards and handling the puck under pressure. While that may seem like an attack on Fraser it’s just the reality of the situation. Fraser is best suited being a bottom pairing defenseman that straightens up the opposition and protects the crease. Those are very valuable and necessary components to a winning hockey club. In reality, Fraser has replaced what Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek were but without the high expectations and at a fraction of the cost.
When the Leafs begin to properly round into form and are capable of icing a more balanced defensive unit (one that would have Jake Gardiner in the lineup above the likes of players limited to bottom pairing defenders) Fraser’s minutes and role will begin to regress. Currently averaging 16:19 of ice time per game, the Leafs will be a much better team when Fraser becomes relied upon to provide between 12-15 minutes a game, while contributing on the penalty kill. Limiting Fraser’s responsibilities will also limit him being exposed and will maximize his effectiveness. It all goes back to putting the players into the appropriate positions to succeed.
Fraser is set to become a restricted free agent at the conclusion of this surprising breakout season. While the term breakout may cause some to roll their eyes, keep in mind it’s a break out as an competent NHL’er versus a career AHL’er. That is still a major and respectable step. How much of a raise (if any) does Fraser look to get from his current $600,000 two-way deal? The Leafs recently signed Korbinian Holzer (a defenseman that Fraser beat out for a job with the Leafs) to a two year $787,500 one-way deal. Does Fraser seek a similar (or greater) contract than Holzer? The Leafs also recently acquired Ryan O’Byrne (a player of similar limited capabilities), what does his arrival say about Fraser and his future with the Leafs? Unearthing a behemoth of a defenseman that is willing to fight and play physical in front of his own goal has been an enjoyable storyline to follow this season. Properly insulating Fraser and allowing him to embody the 5th, 6th or 7th defense position on the squad only furthers the Leafs as an improving and successful franchise.