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?
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.