One of the more difficult players to get a read on this season is Anton Belov. In his first year in North America, the Russian rearguard offered an intriguing mix of ability and error. Should the Edmonton Oilers give him another season to find his way?
In a lot of ways, Belov is the classic puck-moving European defenceman, but with a twist: instead of being small and fast he’s big and slow.
Belov’s strengths are many. He’s relatively poised with the puck, with an ability to make the first pass out of the zone, even under pressure (something he improved on over the course of the year). He has a heavy shot, albeit one that wasn’t used frequently enough. In the defensive zone, he has both the frame (6’4”) and the strength (218 pounds) to hold the front of the net. Versatility is also an asset, as Belov was the only Oilers defenceman who seamlessly made the transition from left side to right side and back again.
There are some weaknesses in the mix, too. The most troubling is Belov’s skating; he has heavy feet and at times he can be exposed by speed. The other issue is that at times he loses one-on-one battles it looks like he should win. Some of that’s a speed issue, some of it’s a meanness issue, but at times it looked like Belov just wasn’t prepared for the kind of pressure he was put under by opposition forwards. In a way, that might be a good sign; the game in the KHL is much more passive and a lot of that could potentially clear up now that he has a season of NHL hockey under his belt.
Anton Belov played regularly with four different partners: Jeff Petry, Justin Schultz, Nick Schultz and Philip Larsen. If we define “regularly” as at least 100 minutes, it’s interesting to compare the performance of those players with Belov to their performance with other partners.
The table which follows shows the Corsi percentage for the Oilers with each of the following pairings on the ice:
|Regular Partner||Jeff Petry||Justin Schultz||Nick Schultz|
(Philip Larsen was not included, as the only defence partner he spent more than 100 minutes with was Belov and so there was no other regular to contrast with. They were an extremely ineffective pairing, with a total on-ice Corsi rating of 34.7 percent).
The interesting thing here is that the three players who spent significant time with Belov and significant time with others all saw better on-ice shot rates with Belov than they did without him. Some of that may be related to role, but it’s hard to escape the idea that a lot of it has to do with Belov’s utility as a player.
The price point matters, but the Oilers could do much worse than Belov as a No. 6/7 option.
His versatility makes him fantastic for the No. 7 role because he can slide in anywhere without disrupting other pairings. He’s big enough to play with a small puck-mover, he’s a good enough puck-mover to survive with a player whose primary abilities lie elsewhere, and he can play the left or the right side. He’s also a significantly better player than other options Edmonton is likely to deploy in this role.
Additionally, there’s still some upside there. One of the Oilers’ (many) gaffes in recent years was the departure of Jan Hejda, who looked uneven in his first season in North America at around the same age Belov is now; he blossomed when he got a chance in Columbus and became a legitimate top-four shutdown defender.
On the right contract, the Oilers should be very interested in bringing Belov back.