Eric Belanger, Job Stealer

When it comes to the Oilers’ centre depth chart, it’s easy to forget about Eric Belanger, who the organization added via free agency this summer. Shawn Horcoff had something of a bounce-back year playing with the kids, Sam Gagner’s till quite young and of course Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ debut is highly anticipated. Add it all up and there seems to be little room for Belanger, who some have slotted for fourth-line duty.

I think Belanger’s going to surprise.

So far, much of the discussion around Belanger has focused on his defensive skills: the way he wins draws and puck battles, shadows opponents, and is as reliable as they come in his own zone. Certainly my own post on the signing spent most of its time on those attributes:

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.

Sounds like a prototypical third-line centre, right? Interestingly, Belanger’s actually been a top-six forward everywhere he’s played (aside from a brief post-deadline stint with the Capitals) over the last four years. He was Minnesota’s second-line centre for a few years, behind Mikko Koivu, and he was also the second-line centre in Phoenix, behind Martin Hanzal.

Has he contributed enough offense to justify that role? Let’s look at the last three seasons.

Season 5v5 G/60 5v5 A/60 5v5 PTS/60
2008-09 0.53 0.71 1.24
2009-10 0.76 1.23 1.99
2010-11 0.60 1.25 1.85
Average 0.63 1.06 1.69

Even with 2008-09 (the year where Belanger started in the offensive zone just 38.6% of the time and was hard-matched against top-six opposition) dragging down the numbers, those totals represent pretty decent offensive production. Belanger’s been a better even-strength goal-scorer than any of the Oilers current centres, and barring a surprise from Nugent-Hopkins (whose goal-scoring is not what got him drafted) or a jump from Gagner, that’s what he’ll be this year too.

One of the things people like me point out about Shawn Horcoff is that his offensive totals at even-strength get drug down by the situations he plays in – generally lots of defensive zone starts, and generally lots of time against top opponents. Belanger has been in a similar position the last few years, playing against slightly easier opposition but taking on even more defensive-zone draws than Horcoff.

Belanger isn’t the first-line centre people in these parts have been waiting for, and he isn’t likely to turn into one either – Nugent-Hopkins or Gagner are better bets – but he has an offensive dimension to his game that is easy to forget about when we think about what a good defensive player he is.

That has certain ramifications. Belanger’s presence gives the Oilers the option of patience with Nugent-Hopkins, should they choose to give him another year of junior or the fourth-line treatment that others (such as Joe Thornton) have been given as rookies. Should the team opt to push Nugent-Hopkins on to a scoring line, Belanger is going to give both Horcoff and Gagner a run for their money when it comes to hanging on to a top-nine forward slot.

So while the Oilers may not have that prototypical game-breaking first-line centre, for the first time in a long time the jobs on important lines down the middle are going to be awarded by something other than default.

    • He’s a bit of a b**ch. He’s whined to media about lack of ice time, said he would never play in Winnipeg, ripped on Atlanta after he left there. He’s known to be a good hockey player, but not a great character guy. Don’t take that to mean he’s a locker room cancer or anything, he’s just been known to speak his mind when he’s unhappy, thus the whiner rep.

  • Lofty

    I can’t wait for training camp. it will be interesting to see who ends up where and whether or not the kids make an improvement this year.

    @Willis
    You should do a piece about sophmore production. use your voodoo math magic.

  • Carl FTWinslow

    Dey Terk Err Jerrrbs!!!

    I can’t see him on the 4th line or at least not for very long. Especially when you consider all the injuries and any slumps our centers go through.

    It might also be interesting to see how much they use him and Horcoff to shield Gagner and friend from own zone starts.

  • Ender

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    for the first time in a long time the jobs on important lines down the middle are going to be awarded by something other than default.

    “for the first time in a long time the jobs on important lines down the middle should be awarded by something other than default.”

    Fixed that for you. Never underestimate the mismanagement potential of the Oilers. They might well get it right. I wouldn’t bet ten of my dollars on it though.

    • Bucknuck

      Ender, I find your lack of faith disturbing.

      I may have to agree with you, since I am afraid they will play Khabibulin 55+ games this winter instead of Dubnyk.

  • ubermiguel

    Who in their right mind has Belanger on the 4th line? I see him getting a regular 3rd line shift + getting on the ice along with Horcs for key draws late in the period/game + regular PK duty.

  • I think Belanger’s going to surprise.

    This isn’t really that much of a surprise though is it? He’s been competent offensively everywhere he’s gone.

    There is every chance that he will be our best center this season. I would love to see him between some youth.

    MPS-Belanger-Omark

    or

    Harski-Belanger-MPS

    Update: Or he could play between Hall and Eberle allowing Horcoff to play tutor for the guys I mentioned above.

  • stevezie

    Is RNH better served by a season on the fourth or in juniors? I don’t claim to know the answer, but you have to think that he’ll be in tough to pass Gagner, Horcoff and Belanger.

    • Lofty

      So much of the game is PK/PP that being on the fourth line and 2nd line PP is gonna get 12-15 minutes a night. It could work if his shiftyness and vision is what it’s touted to be in the NHL. Seguin progressed pretty well from the back end of the lineup last year.

  • kdunbar

    What Im wondering is how many points would RNH get if he stays another year in Junior?
    Minus about 10 games he would play for team Canada he gets into about 56 games..
    I predict he scores 120 points..13 points for team Canada..sounds about right..

  • 24% body fat

    we may not be contenders but dont you feel a lot more confortable at center this year than in a log time. Horcoff will finally be slotted properly, we have some defense to the fold and gagner will not be the soul person to carry the offense at the position

  • kdunbar

    I think that the 4th Line comes down to O’Marra or Ladner. RNH needs to really impress and force himself onto the squad. Or he will be back in Jr.s

    I do think they will give him 9 games before making the decision.

  • 24% body fat

    I’m on Enders side: “Never underestimate the mismanagement potential of the Oilers.” Oilers’ management is similar to Murphy’s Law, if anything can go wrong, they will ensure it does.

    What happens if Belanger is in fact a “job stealer” and is the Oilers’ second line centre? And coming out of TC if Nugent-Hopkins proves to be the first line centre with Lander the fourth line centre, that leaves Horcoff, Gagner and Brule as the third line centres. This is a normal problem for the Oilers, too many of the same type of players.

    Perhaps Tambellini can switch Horcoff for Fraser in the aborted LA trade? Save some cap space.

  • 24% body fat

    Yes! Finally a centre that can win faceoffs, backcheck and hit. So basically Belanger can match Gagner’s point production and do 3 additional things that Gagner can’t (or won’t) do.

    Once Oilers fan get used to seeing centres like this, they’ll be glad Cogliano is gone and they’ll want the same fate for Gagner! Let’s not let draft pedigree cloud our judgment of mediocre players… trade Gagner, waive Brule and bring in more winning centres!

  • I love that Belanger is a solid C option. Totally changes the team. What’s wrong with 4th line C or W for the Nuge with lots of PP time? Horcoff broke in on LW with the 4th line, and Nuge is supposed to have a good 2way game. Plus someone in the top 9 will go down. Guaranteed. Problem is only Renney’s love of goon.

  • Ned Braden

    I agree with JW that Belanger is more than a 4C. I see one of two scenario’s playing out after training camp.

    1 – RNH goes back to Red Deer and you have Gagner, Horcoff, Belanger, Brule down the middle

    2 – RNH makes the team and they trade Gagner to make room.

    I don’t want to start a whole thing about if they should trade Gagner but I don’t see RNH or Belanger playing 4C and I don’t think they can/would trade Horcoff.