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|
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.