TORONTO – The pair landed in Toronto a month or two apart at equally low points in their respective careers.
Mark Fraser was a homegrown product of the New Jersey Devils, but after five years and 98 NHL games he had been deemed expendable, shipped westward to the Ducks in December before landing with the Leafs in another trade two months later. Briefly a teammate of Fraser with the Ducks farm club in Syracuse, 2008 second round pick Nicolas Deschamps was toiling through a miserable second season with the Crunch when he was granted a fresh start with Toronto in early January.
The resuscitation of their careers would begin with the Toronto Marlies under the watch of Dallas Eakins.
Optimism had been high for Fraser in the summer of 2011. His former junior coach Pete DeBoer had just been hired to coach the Devils in a development that seemed to offer nothing but promise. The captain at one time for DeBoer's Kitchener Rangers, Fraser dialed up his old boss that summer wishing congratulations, also inquiring about his future. "I was just asking for a chance to perform and he said that he would give me the opportunity," said Fraser, who played in 61 games as a rookie with New Jersey in 2009-2010, bouncing in and out of the lineup the following season.
The promise of opportunity under DeBoer was quickly dashed.
Fraser laced up for just four games and was gone before Christmas.
"Unfortunately, between Pete and I, it wasn't a fit at the NHL level, but for many reasons besides our relationship," the 25-year-old explained. "The unfortunate thing is sometimes whether a coach likes it or not there's other deciding factors; there's general managers, there's scouts, there's other coaches, there's a lot of different opinions. And generally, it is the management who gets to decide."
While he holds no outward bitterness towards DeBoer, it's clear that his exit from Jersey was marked with disappointment. "My end in New Jersey wasn't due to the coaching staff or lack of connection, it was just the business side of things," said Fraser. "I'm really happy with where I landed now."
An imposing stay-at-home type on the blueline, the six-foot-four, 220-pound Fraser rapidly injected the Marlies with a dimension and leadership presence they had been lacking, forming a shutdown pair with Korbinian Holzer en route to an appearance in the Calder Cup final. Eakins realized the value the Ottawa native added and lauded his importance throughout the postseason run. "When he can turn around and say that to me about my game it just literally wanted me to elevate it that much more," said Fraser of Eakins' repeated support. "It was a phenomenal pat on the back, better than I've actually ever had before in my career."
Deschamps had amassed a lowly seven points and minus-7 rating in 31 games with Syracuse after a solid rookie season. He too rediscovered his game in Toronto, tallying 30 points and a plus-13 rating in 40 games, adding 12 more points in the postseason.
But he was not immune to inconsistency and frankly, he heard about it.
Scratched for the first time in his career in a game against Rochester, the Lasalle, Quebec native received a blunt assessment from Eakins. "He just told me 'You're not playing to your potential and if you're not playing like that you're not going to play'."
Deschamps didn't agree with the decision at first, but gradually took note of the lesson embedded in Eakins' tactic. "Every player wants to play," he said. "I just got fired up for the rest of the season. I just said in my mind 'I don't ever want to get scratched again'."
The Marlies head coach has a thorough strategy for every new player added to his roster.
"Number one, I've got to get to know them," Eakins explained. "I just start the conversation like you would when you're getting to know somebody, 'Where you from? Where were you were born? How was your childhood? Are your parents together? Do you have any brothers or sisters?' I try to get as much information that I can from the individual and that takes a lot of conversations. It's not just come in, sit down and we do an interview… It's an ongoing process.
Secondly, "I usually make about three or four calls," Eakins continued. "The great thing about my career being moved around as a player is I know almost everybody in the game. And so when we get a player in I'm usually able to quickly make three or four calls and get a few different opinions on the kid, get some other information and then now at least I've got some information on the motivation and his confidence and which way is this going to go."
Gauging the foundations of their careers to that point, Eakins is able to determine the tactics he'll need, be it a "firm kick in the butt" or a "hug". "Everybody thinks you coach a team, well you don't, you coach 23-25 individuals and you've got to find out which buttons are going to help you," he said. "I go into the weight room and I've been working out, but I've never known how much weight was on the bar. How do I know how much to lift? You've got to get to these kids' pasts and their present and how they want to go ahead in the future.
"When it comes to their work ethic and their discipline, every player in there, they know it, they are treated 100% the same. And when it comes to the way I'm going to motivate them and their goals – their personal goals, not goals on the ice – I treat every one of them exactly different."
It's a strategy that has yielded optimal results, particularly in the case of Fraser and Deschamps.
"When guys go out, we want to play for him not because we're afraid," concluded Fraser, "but because we respect him and we don't want to let him down."