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Mark “Snowshoes” Fraser evokes memories of some old-time Maple Leafs

I admit it:  sometimes, as I've been watching watching the Leafs this season, I’ve wondered why Mark Fraser is with the big club.  I mean, I understand that the guy has a big heart and all that, but in an era where speed, puck movement and the transition game are so important, he seems like, well, a throwback. And an out-of-place throwback at that.

Yet I have to admit something else:  the more I've watched and focused on him, trying to find  legitimate reasons why he shouldn't be here, I’ve actually started to accumulate a checklist in my mind as to why he has been a contributor to the relative Leaf success so far this season (if we can call a  record of 8 wins and 5 losses this early in a season a "success"- and I think, under the circumstances, we can).

I'm not very good at making cocktails, and in hockey terms, this particular cocktail- a mix of a slow-footed defenseman in a high-speed game- just seemed like a bad mix to me.  I thought it was a nice gesture, you know, to promote a hard-working Marlie and all that.  But I also assumed that by this point in the season (well before now, actually), Jake Gardiner would be in his "rightful" place on the blueline, (not to mention Gunnarsson upon his return) and Fraser would be back toiling for the Marlies.

How off-base I was. (I did not include him in my write-up yesterday as one of the key Leaf contributors, because I knew I would post about him today...)

So why is this guy here?  Well, he minimizes his mistakes, which is important for any defenseman. While I would hardly call him offensively gifted, there he was a few games back, holding on to the puck, making a little fake, before finding Franson for an important goal.  But way more significant than his limited offensive contributions, he is a defender first and a defenseman that, despite being slow afoot, makes his presence felt.  He seems to have his angles down pretty well.  (He has to, given his lack of foot speed.) And as I've witnessed in recent games especially, he seems to wait until just the right moment before he eliminates his man from the play and pins him against the boards—and he seems to relish doing it with authority.

Look, I admit (there’s that word again) that my view is a fragile one, and it could change pretty quickly—I reserve that right as a lifelong Leaf fan—but the guy has shown me something.  Obviously Randy Carlyle caught on before I did.  And that Fraser is somehow +11 with only one point to his credit while playing more than 12 minutes a night just adds to his somewhat unique storyline this season.

Not to make comparisons just for the sake of it, but Fraser has kind of brought back memories of a couple of former Leafs of my youth—Allan Stanley and Bobby Baun.

Stanley (right, fighting for possession of the puck in late '50s action at the Forum against Montreal great Jean Beliveau) was traded to the Leafs at the beginning of the 1958-’59 season, after having played, I believe, for every U.S. based team at the time in the NHL except Detroit (Chicago, Boston and New York) in those glorious pre-expansion days.  But his time in Toronto ultimately made him a Hall-of-Famer, though he was a fine player before he ever got here.  The hardly-fleet-of-foot Stanley (he was nicknamed “Snowshoes” because of his rather awkward and slow skating style) partnered beautifully with Tim Horton, the flashier, speedier, hard-shooting future donut magnate, who, like Stanley, went on to become a Hall-of-Fame player.

But what really set Stanley apart, in my view, was ‘angles’.  He knew opposing players, knew how to position himself and knew how to keep himself (legally) between the man and the puck.  He didn’t have a big shot, or big offensive stats; he was a smart, he got where he needed to go through anticipation, timing and, again, playing angles superbly.

For his part, Baun was nicknamed “Boomer”, because he could (and did) deliver  thundering, old-time, open-ice body checks. (Chicago’s Bobby Hull was a guy our Bobby particularly liked to hammer…)  Like Stanley, Baun also teamed with a higher-profile, more offensively talented partner in Carl Brewer.  But Baun, like Stanley, was one of the backbone players who helped make the Leafs champions four times in the 1960s.

Those were different times, and it was a different era, of course.  Baun and Stanley played the bulk of their careers whern most teams utilized only four defensemen on a regular basis.  There were, until 1967, only six teams in the NHL.  While there were fast teams (Chicago and Montreal in the early ‘60s) and speedy players, the game was much slower-paced, no question, than what we see today.  There was plenty of room for players who weren’t speedsters as long as they brought other things to the table.

To suggest Fraser is in the same league as Stanley or Baun would be a lofty comparison, and I’m not suggesting Fraser is.  But in a day and age when I wouldn’t think a defenseman with Fraser’s limitations would be an NHL regular, he has shown he is a capable guy who is helping the Leafs.  And he deserves some credit.

Throw in the fact that the former New Jersey Devil (evidently tutored by the likes of former Montreal great Larry Robinson, a coach with the Devils at the time)  presents as a genuinely nice guy and well, it's OK to admit that, just maybe, I was wrong.


  1. MIchael,

    As I said in an earlier comment. Mark Fraser does seem to know his role, and his place on the team. He doesn't try to do too much. Makes the smart play and takes the body every chance he gets. To use a phrase you hate, solely because I can, he epitomizes the no excuses mantra. He does his job, asking no quarter, and giving none in return. Just some old time hockey. A very nice, and refreshing turn of events. I am happy for him, even if he does end the season with the Marlies when others return to the team. I would not be hesitant in the least to have him on the Leafs for a playoff run. Imagine me saying that 3 weeks ago.

  2. Fraser is doing his job, for sure, Jim. I sense a lot of Leaf fans are glad for him.

  3. I've enjoyed the defensive play of Fraser so far and I enjoy the fact that he brings that ability to throw down when necessary, but I fear that he can be "figured out" by the opposition quickly. Like you said Michael, he is a rather slow player who seems to know just when to cut the angle on a player coming into the zone. But how easy will it be for these speedy forwards to adjust and find a way around him? My concern is that his limitations will become apparent very quickly, whereas with a player like Gunnarsson, you have a guy who can play that defensive style but who also has the speed to correct himself positionally much more quickly. All that said, I certainly hope Fraser continues his strong defensive play, not only because I'm a huge Leafs fan, but also because I spent my minor hockey years as a slow-footed stay-at-home defenseman and that makes me root for those types a little more :)

  4. Michael,

    He's the perfect 6th defenseman. You know what you're going to get every night, the players seem to like him, he doesn't mind getting his nose dirty and keeping people accountable. As long as he plays the 10-15 minutes a night against the oppositions weaker lines then I see no reason for him to go anywhere.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that unless we see a long term injury Gardiner stays with the Marlies. Him and Holzer are the only two that don't have to clear waivers. If Gardiner plays 3 more NHL games he'll no longer be waiver exempt. Once Gunnarson is ready to return (my feeling is they'll wait till he's 100%)the roster will be full, they may send down Holzer so he plays, but I doubt they call up Jake and park 2-3 defensemen next to Cliff Fletcher long term.

    I think if Nonis could pull some sort of a trade involving perhaps Komisarek for a worse contract + prospect/pick we can move to the minors it would free up roster space and solve this logjam. Because Fraser probably deserves to stick around and play.

  5. I think we all have a bit of a place in our heart for any player, Twisted Sittler, who reminds us of "us", in some way. As you rightly note, the league may well "figure him out", but then it will be for Fraser to make adjustments- again. My sense is players with limited skill, besides having to out-work other people, also have to continually make little refinements to their game to survive. Fraser may be one of those guys. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. You make a great point about Gardiner, Alex (alspicer.) These are all the little considerations that we as fans sometimes overlook, but Nonis can't.

    No question Fraser has been effective. I'm going to project that he will have some rough outings ahead that may make us re-think our position, but for now, as you say, in limited minutes, playing lesser lines, he has contributed. And he has been one of the guys who adds that dimension of toughness. Good stuff, thanks.

  7. As I was reading your post and before I got to the part about Allan Stanley and Bobby Baun a name came to mind. Brad Marsh. He also was a bit slow and not too talented. But on a somewhat mediocre team and paired with Al Iafrate he was effective. The two played well enough together for opposition to take notice.

    I think this is the case with Fraser today. By himself (as was Marsh) he's not very good. But with the right partner he pulls it off.

    Waiting on that 80's post you mentioned the other day, Michael. Gotta love those stripes down the sleeves of the sweaters, eh?

    Here's something to chew on...
    Who from the 80's Leafs would make this team today? Wendell of course. Iafrate? Gill? Marois? Damphousse? Bester? How about a 80's and 2013 starting lineup?

  8. I really like your Fraser-Marsh comparison, portuguese leaf. In fact, that's a much better point of reference than what I mentioned (but hey, I love talking about the '60s Leafs!). Marsh was as you described- not much on his own, but with the right partner, a guy who knew how to position himself and was a real hockey warrior, for sure. A very popular Leaf and deservedly so.

    The '80s post is almost ready to go. I've been caught up a bit talking bout the current Leafs but I will aim to finalize it and post it soon! (Very good question, by the way. There were some talented individuals on a few of the '80s teams and yes some of those guys could certainly play here now...)

  9. Not sure why Michael, but Fraser reminds me of another former Leaf defencemen, Jamie Macoun. Maybe its the mustache, or maybe his size or toughness. What Fraser lacks in passing/scoring, he makes up with toughness.

    Like you I'm surprised by his play, and hadn't really thought of him as being a true NHL defenceman. Is he going to be a 6th, 7th or 8th D-man, or is he a very good AHL defenceman? With Leafs' depth on D, his future here is very uncertain. Leafs have a LOT of defencemen, and Fraser has a two-way contract. Leafs would have to make some other serious changes if they wanted to make a spot for Fraser.

    Maybe a trade might be the best scenario for the Leafs and for Fraser. He could provide some needed help on D for some teams who are hurting for defencemen (due to injuries, or lack of depth).

  10. Macoun is another good point of comparison, Don (TML_fan), just as portuguese leaf mentioned Brad Marsh earlier today (above).

    Hard to project where Fraser will fit down the road- is he just a "stop-gap" guy for when Gunner and Gardiner return? Or does the Leaf brass now see him as someone who can help stabilize (and toughen up) our blue line? Interesting...

  11. I was surprised to read all the references to Mark Fraser as “slow”, because I do not perceive him as slow. Perhaps my perception comes from the fact that there is more to hockey speed than foot speed. Where I am seeing Fraser as a relatively quick defenseman has to do with positioning and transitioning. In other words, if you are in the right position in the first place, then you do not have to skate a bunch of strides to get there (often too late given the speed of the game today). The next has to do with transitioning. The puck does not remain on Fraser’s stick long. He is quick to identify the correct teammate to pass to. Quickly and efficiently, the puck is off his stick and moving up the ice in transition. Or, in the offensive zone, the puck is onto the stick of an uncovered teammate who can either shoot or make another pass with sufficient time.

    Of course, goaltenders love this type of defenseman. Not only are they well protected from harassment and intimidation by the opposition (Holzer is another one who does not tolerate BS around the crease) but the angles are played technically correctly in ways that help to keep the puck out of the danger areas. The game becomes more manageable. The ability to make quick transitions gets the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and efficiently, allowing the goalie to get out of the taxing crouch position and rest before the next onslaught. Anyone who follows my comments knows that I am no stats junkie (quite the opposite), however we have seen a couple of ballooning stats coincide with Fraser’s ice time: One is Fraser’s remarkable plus minus, but the other that may not be immediately attributed to Fraser is the goaltending save percentage, which I think reflects his play and the effect he has on his teammates’ play (team play in goal).

    Fraser has certain qualities that hockey observers recognize immediately but are more subtle to identify than flashier qualities. Consequently, we reach for roughly equivalent comparison. These comparisons never quite nail it because at the end of the day, each hockey player is unique. I am betting that many supporters would agree that the particular quality that Mark Fraser brings has been lacking on the Leaf defense for some time now. Beauchemin comes to mind, but again each player is unique. However, I am probably not alone in feeling a sense of relief that Fraser is there, but also a kind of confidence that is probably shared by his teammates as well. We know that Fraser will likely be in position; we know that the puck will transition quickly and we also know that the opposition will not take liberties, especially around the crease area. These qualities allow players to transition quickly resulting in offensive opportunities not necessarily reflected by Fraser's name on the score sheet. It allows goalies to focus on technical positioning rather than scrambling and improvising around unpredictable situations/ The goalers probably also feel that the number of times they will be bowled over and risk injury is significantly reduced, allowing them to position themselves at the top of the crease and cut down angles.

    I do not share the view that other teams will figure Fraser out and his effectiveness will be reduced. There is really nothing to figure out. His style is about as old as the game itself, sound fundamentals that do not seem to change over time. Stanley had them, Robinson had them, Pronger had them. After all, there is no defense against sound defense.

  12. Love the references to "Snowshoes" - what a great nickname!
    It strikes me another element in the success f a player like Fraser is how the Leaf forwards can help him on the back check. New jersey forwards used to herd opposing players towards Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko, which maximized their hitting potential. As the Leafs evolve, it seeks to me that Fraser, being one of those throw-back type of defencemen, can continue to be effective with similar help from his teammates. What he definitely provides, and what neither Gunner or Gardiner do, is toughness. Opposing forwards are keeping their heads up when he's on the ice, and it's been a while since that happened.
    As Leaf fans, we're always waiting for the other skate to drop, you might say, but a player who's +11, effective, and who can hit seems like someone we'd want to keep on the big squad!

  13. Well articulated, Bobby C.. There is indeed so much more to playing defense than foot speed, as you outlined so well, Bobby (though I will still maintain Fraser, by any measure, is slow afoot, compared with the vast majority of players nowadays!).

    Those other qualities can make for an effective defenseman, and knowing one's limits can be useful, too. We will see where this solid young player fits down the road! Thanks Bobby.

  14. Your last sentence was perfect, Gerund O'- we are indeed usually waiting for the other shoe to drop in Leafland. But guys who play hard and smart seem to find a way to earn the trust of their coaches. Maybe he's a better player than he was in New Jersey, having learned along the way. Whatever the case may be, for now, Carlyle and crew want him around!

  15. When you mentioned throwback I immediately thought of Allan Stanley. He is a heavier hitter than Stanley was but, like Stanley Fraser is excellent positionally. There is little wasted movement and he does a very good job of clearing the opposition from the front of the net (something that has been sadly lacking in the near past). He works well with Franson and I believe has played a big part in Franson's improved play. A final observation on Fraser: I don't think he would be on the Leafs if Wilson were still the coach. He is thriving under Carlyle's disciplined system but would have been lost under Wilson's Keystone Cops approach.

    Sorry I haven't posted for a while but I decided at the start of the season that I would wait for the quarter point before I made any observations.
    Needless to say, I am more than pleased at what I have seen so far. Randy Carlyle deserves a great deal of credit. Everyone is hustling. They are moving the puck efficiently out of their end (it is so refreshing not to see them hemmed into their own end shift after shift). Van Riemsdyke, Komarov, Frattin, McClement and Kadri have provided a spark and skill set that is exciting to watch as opposed to the weak efforts of Connolly and Lombardi. Holzer, Kostka and Fraser have shored up the defense and made it a lot more difficult for opposing forwards to play in the Leafs end.

    It is nice to be able to talk about positives when discussing the Leafs. There will be peaks and valleys but it looks to me that they will continue to improve.

  16. It's entirely reasonable to wait until the "quarter pole" to start making any serious assessments about a team, Pete Cam. As I think you know, I usually withhold such judgments, too, until the Leafs have played a while. This season is different, given the compacted schedule.

    I have to agree that, so far, the Carlyle effect has been crucial. We'll see if this "sticks", but my guess is the combination of a "new voice", structure that is understandable and a team full of guys trying to stay with the big club makes for progress.

    Good to connect again, Pete Cam. All solid points. Thanks.

  17. I'm not sure if I should post this here or in Sunday's colum, but it's good news:

    Wade Arnott, the agent for Phil Kessel, told The Fan 590 on Wednesday morning that Kessel would prefer to finish his NHL career with the Leafs.

    “This young man lives and breathes hockey,” Arnott said. “He was very excited to come here four years ago. I think if you asked Phil today, he’d love to finish his career here in Toronto. But it’s still young in his career right now.”

    “Phil would like nothing more than to help the Maple Leafs make the playoffs. He wants to experience playoff hockey here in Toronto. That’s the first step to winning a potential Stanley Cup here in Toronto. He was very disappointed last year. They had a very good start to the season. They were in a playoff position at the turn of the calendar year and unfortunately the last third of the season didn’t go well.”

  18. On the surface, that's good news for sure, DP. Now, that said, I would expect an agent to say that, to nudge the Leafs to make Kessel an offer he simply "can't refuse" before becoming a free-agent. What Kessel thinks he's worth may be the challenge for the Leafs....

  19. Here's another quote. This seems rather genuine:

    "Phil is still a really young man. I can tell you he really enjoys living in Toronto and playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This young man lives and breathes hockey. He was very excited to come here four years ago from the Boston Bruins,” Arnott said. “He’s still young man in terms of maturity level. I think he’s misinterpreted in the media to some extent. Phil is very well-liked by his teammates, and he’s becoming more outgoing."

    Here is the audio link:

  20. I was looking for a top +/- player to add to my pool team and was surprised to discover, as you noted, that Fraser is among the league leaders in that regard, Michael.I should not have been, however, seeing as Fraser was a key ingredient in last years' Marlies squad that led the AHL in penalty killing.Another Eakins miracle!

  21. Sounds like a Seinfeld "Festivus miracle", Sean!

    But yes, Fraser is up there in plus/minus. Can it last?