How Does Eric Belanger Fit Long-Term?

Jonathan Willis
March 02 2012 11:02PM

One of the more disappointing side points of the Oilers’ 2011-12 season has been the play of veteran centre Eric Belanger. Going back to before the lockout, Belanger has been the model of modest offensive dependability; his point totals per season starting in 2002-03 are 35, 33, 37, 35, 37, 36, 39 and 40. Eight straight seasons in the 33-40 point range undoubtedly made Oilers management confident of what they were getting; confident enough to sign Belanger to a three-year contract.

There’s more to hockey than points, but with just 13 through 60 games prior to tonight's matchup against Dallas it’s clear that Belanger is not delivering as expected. How does he fit long-term?

Shooting Percentage

The biggest item for Belanger is shooting percentage; he’s fired 97 shots at net and scored just three times, for a 3.1% scoring clip. This isn’t a case of Patrick O’Sullivan-style muffin shots either – Belanger has a career percentage of 10.6%, so he’s a reasonably good shooter, and I can easily think of a number of times when he was robbed on strong chances.

If Belanger were converting shots to goals at his career rate, he’d have 10 goals now instead of three. Ten goals and 10 assists would work out to a total of 20 points, and an 82-game pace of 27 points. That’s still below career average, but it is a massive improvement on what he’s done this season.

The Things Belanger Has Done Well

I’m convinced that one of the reasons Belanger hasn’t been pilloried by fans the way other underperformers have is because he’s still providing valuable services in some areas. Despite taking a ton of faceoffs on the penalty-kill and fewer on the power play (because the extra teammate can help win scrambles, players typically have a faceoff percentage above 50% on the power play and below 50% on the penalty kill), Belanger’s overall percentage this season in the faceoff circle is 57.2%. At even-strength, that figure jumps to 58.5%. He’s one of the league’s very best in that area.

It’s also likely that the uptick in the Oilers’ penalty kill this season can be laid at least in part on Belanger’s feet (though Ryan Smyth also deserves a lot more credit than he gets for the turnaround of the unit). Over the last three seasons, the Oilers penalty kill has ranked 29th, 26th and 27th in the NHL – this year, they’re above the league average at 14th overall. The only forward on the team with more time on the ice shorthanded than Belanger is long-time stalwart Shawn Horcoff.

Aalso worth noting is how Belanger has been used at even-strength – in a way that allows the younger forwards to pick up the prime offensive minutes. While Nugent-Hopkins is starting two out of every three shifts in the offensive zone, Belanger starts more shifts in his own endthan any other Oilers’ forward.

These are things that matter, precisely because the Oilers have fared so poorly at them in recent years. Signing Belanger was an attempt to fill the Oilers’ needs – and in these areas, he’s done the job beautifully.

The Rest Of The Story

On the other hand, while Belanger is certainly playing defensive minutes , it isn’t like he’s facing the vaunt every night – for the most part, he’s getting tossed out against the opposition’s depth players. He’s also been less likely to pick up a point on an even-strength shift than noted offensive juggernauts Darcy Hordichuk and Lennart Petrell.

For an NHL veteran on a multi-year deal that pays him well, that sort of production isn’t really acceptable.

Getting back to the question posed in the title, where does Belanger fit next season? Based on the Oilers’ depth chart, he would seem to be bound for some time on the fourth line. Of course, we don’t know what the summer will bring or how injuries will impact the lineup, but we do know that he’s unlikely to be ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner or Shawn Horcoff on the depth chart.

With that said, I don’t think Belanger’s a lost cause. I think his shooting percentage will rebound, and I tend to think he can offer more offense in other areas than he’s shown this season. There’s nearly a decade of evidence suggesting that we haven’t seen the best from Eric Belanger, so while this year may be a harbinger of things to come I expect that we’ll be pleasantly surprised by his improved scoring next season.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 PaperDesigner
March 02 2012, 11:13PM
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Belanger is going to be really interesting next season--either he's taken a step down in his career, or he's just having his first very poor season in a long time.

If it's the former, I think a buy-out, simply to get the roster space may be in order during the 2013 off-season.

But if it's the latter, he's invaluable. Someone who can provide some offense on lower lines is extremely valuable to a team that will may be breaking in players like Hartikainen, Pitlick, Hamilton and maybe Omark and Paajarvi as well on lower lines over the next season or two. A defensively reliable centre, with all the incredibly young talent, would be very nice to have in a depth position.

What Edmonton really needs at forward is for them to get a set, tough minutes first line. A line that can consistently go up against the best lines in the league, and outscore them. It would be wonderful if Horcoff's job description wasn't "shut down the Sedins so that the kids can score against someone else". Hall can probably handle that assignment, and Hemsky has for years... is Gagner ready, I wonder?

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#2 PutzStew
March 02 2012, 11:22PM
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Who cares. Doesn't matter who's on the ice. As long as Tambi and Klowe are in charge don't expect much but underperforming players, guys wanting to leave and no play-offs.

As for Belanger...well....what did you expect. You would think Oilers fans would be use to seeing veterans that have had success else where, come to town and have a hard time finding the net. This isn't anything new. For every guy like Potter that has come here there has been how many Coles, Belangers and Sourays. I can't blame the players anymore. It's been a constant with the numerous coaches, so who's tanting the team.

It's called bad management. It's what the Oiler have had since Sather left.

There your next Blog Willis. "Do the Tambi and Klowe fit long term"

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#3 Eddie Shore
March 02 2012, 11:23PM
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Don't Horcoff and Belanger fill the same role? I think that having them both is redundant unless Belanger is our full-time 4th line C movIng forward and judging by what I hear from Stauffer/Gregor he sees himself as more than that.

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#4 David S
March 02 2012, 11:30PM
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Eric freakin' Belanger? The "Belanger Triangle"?

*spits*

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#5 hunkybill
March 03 2012, 12:13AM
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Awedome game tonight

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#6 Eric
March 03 2012, 12:30AM
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I like the new "Recent Articles" section. I enjoy your stuff, but I am too lazy to click around looking for it.

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#7 Al
March 03 2012, 12:39AM
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With two more years under contract I'd say Belanger is here to stay. What really bothers me is not merely the lack of points. There has been a total lack of chemistry with anyone...well maybe his chemistry with his shadow may be okay.

The main concern is how Renney has chosen to use Belanger this year. It's as though he has no clue. It's one thing to try him on the PP but to leave him there for 60+ games is unfathomible. Renney's use of most of the line-up has me questioning his reasoning.

If Renney gets re-signed I will be very surprised.

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#8 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
March 03 2012, 12:46AM
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Great 4th line center, decent third line center. No reason to move him now unless a superior player is brought in via free agency as its clear Lander is no better but a maybe at this point.

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#9 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
March 03 2012, 12:47AM
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David S wrote:

Eric freakin' Belanger? The "Belanger Triangle"?

*spits*

For the most part you'd think you were a pretty bright guy... Then you post something like this.

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#10 They're $hittie
March 03 2012, 07:00AM
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Wait, has any free agent we signed or big name player we traded for produced to their standard? Other than pronger or peca,

Lupul, Souray, Cole, Pitkanen, Penner, POS, Nedved, Dvorak belanger, fraser, kotalik,

This organization has something against player performance, or the pro scouts are terrible.

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#11 Saytalk
March 03 2012, 07:12AM
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Belanger's cap hit of $1.75M isn't that bad for a guy who can take key faceoffs, kill penalties, play a solid 4th line centre role, and provide some roster depth and move into the 3rd line centre spot when injuries occur (too often).

Age could also be a factor. Perhaps Belanger is now on that quick downslide players hit in their mid-30's.

However, I think too many fans underappreciate the importance of role players, especially the defensive specialists. Belanger fills one of those roles for us. The Oilers haven't had a complete NHL team in years, so we should stop ripping the few guys that can fill an NHL role and start looking at the areas where the team is clearly deficient, namely goaltending, defense, coaching and general managing.

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#12 Rama Lama
March 03 2012, 10:28AM
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Belenger has been infected with Horcoff's DNA......and now he is offensively ineffective while clooecting great sums of money.

If a team has one of these players, you can usually survice, but three, and you are in trouble.

I'm talking about Horcoff, Hemsky, and Belenger all being massive underachievers. Renny with his retarded coaching style needs to take some of the blame here! I have never seen a coach that continously juggles lines, mis matches skill sets, ever be successful.

Renny has to go to the light!

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#13 RossCreekNation
March 03 2012, 10:50AM
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I don't see where he fits. You have RNH/Gagner/Horcoff as your top 3, and Lander spent most of this yr here, so you'd have to assume he's a lock next fall too, not to mention he's gonne play some quality hockey over the next few months which should help his game.

Ideally, they'd add a solid checking winger to the mix to play a 3rd line role with Horcoff & Smyth to form a shutdown unit. I know they have Jones & Eager that perhaps could play in that spot, but neither is considered a truly defensively responsible guy. Off the top of my head (and this surely isn't a sexy name), perhaps a guy like Daniel Winnick...? I guess you could try Paajarvi there (with Smytty on the right side), but then they'd definitely need to add a top 4 winger with size (which they prob need anyways).

This leaves names like Lander, Belanger, Jones, Eager, Hartikainen, potential UFA's Petrell & Hordichuk, as well as any off-season acquisitions to round out the final 4 or 5 spots.

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#14 Oiler AL
March 03 2012, 10:53AM
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Belanger is a 4th line player on this team. He fills the same role as Horcoff.. good face off guys, decent defensively and very little on offence.Belanger grit and energy on most nights is a about 4 out of 10. Its almost alarming that guys coming up to the OIlers hit the ebb tide in their game? I also think that there is very little player/roster improvment and development from year one on. The coach is a deadstick and his teams come to play the same way.Stars, game was another non event from the opening whistle.. not ready to play. Its unfortunate that the Journal staff dont have the ya yas to comment on coaching and managment, or maybe its the editors postion to not tell it like it is.

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#15 FastOil
March 03 2012, 11:02AM
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While the boys learn how to match up better, the Oil need two lines that can play tougher opposition. Horcoff and Smyth need some help as we've seen. Belanger can carry a checking line, but it won't be good if he has to play with marginal NHL players.

The only way to get better is have better players. Starting at the top with Gilbert was not a good move by Steve-O. Start at the bottom.

Adios Petrell, Jones, Hordi, maybe Eager too, but there is some ability there. Sign a UFA or two to help out Belanger. Hartikainen has to show AHL dominance for me to think he should be in the NHL. Not yet.

Smyth - Horcoff - Omark vet - Belanger - vet Eager

Omark has decent possession numbers, I think he would do fine there, especially if Jones sort of did.

Ciao Barker, Peckham. Teubert to the AHL until he is better, Whitney on LTIR until he is actually healed, if ever. Sign a UFA to cover for Whitney.

Schultz - Petry Smid - vet Sutton - Potter vet

Sutton - Potter is a decent 3rd pairing if Sutton has another good year.

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#16 FastOil
March 03 2012, 11:04AM
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Sorry the line combos did that, hard to read.

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#18 RossCreekNation
March 03 2012, 11:40AM
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@Jonathan Willis

I agree that he should have been in OKC this season, but I highly doubt he's there next season.

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#19 Oil Impact
March 03 2012, 11:58AM
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Veteran LEADERSHIP!!!!

We don't have veteran leadership. Bottom line. The closest thing to veteran leadership is Petry who wasn't suppose to be here. He is still young in D man terms. The Dallas game(one of the most boring games ever) he took control of his own end, winning battles, carrying the puck up ice and jumping in on the rush when needed.

Our kids cannot be expected to provide ALL the offense all the time. Right now I see a 10 million dollar hemroid developing and it should be removed. Is there any pride or is the drive gone? With the DEAL I was hoping for some sort of thankyou and I promise not to let you down effort. Nothing other than hanging of the head in shame after shooting 5 times into the oppositions shin pads. Skill yes - heart no. Always been a fan of his skill but he has forgotten what it takes to be successful. I feel that our coaching staff is forever trying to find a place for him to succeed but he won't until he makes his mind up to become a leader again. This is a team and a team with alot of good hockey players on it now. Get over yourself. You may not be put in situations as in the past but suck it up princess. You can help this team WIN!

I'm sure after years of missing the playoffs there is a chance that could wear you down but the light is getting brighter and its time to get back on the horse. He needs to lead by example on and off the ice and he will be a happier guy. I'm worried that if we don't get some veteran leadership soon our young guys may get used to losing and through osmosis end up not minding it like some of the others.

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#20 David S
March 03 2012, 01:43PM
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OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F wrote:

For the most part you'd think you were a pretty bright guy... Then you post something like this.

What else is there to say? Other than a decent FO% and being an OK PK'er, the guy is a boat anchor anywhere he plays. He's positionally unaware and Charmin soft (see the second goal last night?).

I'd have been happy if we traded him at the deadline for a Wendy's hot potato and a smelly pair of gym socks, even if that would have probably been an overpay.

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