In the not-too distant past, the Oilers fancied themselves a team that needed to add marquee talent. They chased Dany Heatley for what felt like an eternity before finally taking the hint; they wined and dined Marian Hossa, and flirted with acquiring Jaromir Jagr. They generally settled for second-tier stars, inking Sheldon Souray to the richest contract of his career, signing Michael Nylander, and locking up Stanley Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year deal.
On the first day of free agency in 2011, they did something entirely different. They added Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk on relatively small dollar deals, sating those commentators who feared the Oilers were going to get outmuscled due to a lack of fourth-line brawn. We’ve already considered the facelift that Steve Tambellini gave the defence corps. Yet, it was their latest deal, the signing of checking forward Eric Belanger, that made Friday a successful day for Edmonton.
Belanger is arguably a better fit for the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers than any of the names we considered in the opening paragraph were for the various incarnations of the team over the last few years.
A household name, Belanger isn’t. He’s probably better known among casual fans for derisive comments he made as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes towards playing in Winnipeg than he is for what he’s done in the National Hockey League (as an aside: apparently the occasionally frigid confines of Edmonton are more appealing to at least one player than those in Winnipeg). Yet he fits the Oilers’ needs to a tee.
The Edmonton Oilers are the worst faceoff team in the league. Eric Belanger won 55.3% of his draws in 2010-11. In 2009-10, that number was 56.4%. He’s established himself as one of the premiere faceoff men in the game.
The Edmonton Oilers have been one of the leagues worst penalty killing teams for years now, and two coaching changes have been unable to turn the tide. Eric Belanger has been integral to the short-handed units of many teams for years now, including the Jacques Lemaire-coached Minnesota Wild.
The Edmonton Oilers lack capable defensive forwards, players who can handle assignments in their own end. Eric Belanger has been handling defensive zone assignments for as far back as we have data, and while recently the load has lightened a bit, Jacques Lemaire used to send him out for nearly twice as many own-zone draws as offensive zone draws. Not only that, but Belanger has for years been assigned to check either the first or second line of opposing teams, something else the Oilers need help with.
Belanger’s defensive skills, which are extensive and tend to be underrated, aren’t all that he brings to the table. He scored 40 points last season – that would have been three off the team lead in Edmonton. He has scored at least 13 goals and finished with at least 35 points every single season since the NHL lockout.
Belanger is a superb and underrated player, the classic checking centre who handles assignments in his own end against the opposition’s top scorers, who wins face-offs and kills penalties, and still has enough left in the tank to contribute offensively.
For three years at a remarkably reasonable $1.75 million cap hit, it does not get better. For the Oilers, Belanger represents exactly what they need, at a term and price that sound too good to be true.