Thursday, October 20, 2011

Eric Belanger...So Far, So Good

While most people were in favour of binging Eric Belanger on board, I sensed the majority were ultimately looking for him to come in and replace Shawn Horcoff as the go to guy in crucial situations on the penalty kill and taking the big defensive zone draws. My expectaions for the former Minnesota Wild, had him coming in and helping Horcoff out in those tough situations but not taking over as the main guy. By lightening the load on much maligned veteran, I was thinking that both players could end up having productive years in roles that they would both be better suited for. Granted, it has only been five games but Eric Belanger sure looks like the player that the Edmonton Oilers have desperately need for sometime.

Have look at the early season numbers, and one clearly sees the benefit of having the veteran centre around has had on Horcoff. Yes, $5 million man is off to a good start on the score sheet with four points in five games but it is "the other stats" where we have seen a huge spike. Back in the 2008-2009, the Oiler captain led the NHL in faceoffs taken with 1,756, one of only two players in the entire league to hit the circle more then 1,700 times. Even more impressive, was his 53.9% efficiency in the dot when you consider how many draws he took. The following two seasons have seen his percentage fall to 46.4% and 48.3% respectively. Still decent numbers but a substantial drop off. Belanger is coming off a season in which he went 55.3% in the dot and had totals of 56.4 % and 52.0% the previous two seasons. He seems to be going in the opposite direction, as his totals clearly are on the upswing. Fast forward to the current campaign, again only five games in, and Belanger has being even better then advertised winning 57.7% of his draws while Horcoff has taken an enormous leap forward and is sitting at 60.4%. The longtime Oiler still is taking the majority of the draws, 30 more then Belanger, but his success rate has shot through the roof. So what is making such a difference? The latest player to pull over the number 20 jersey is the difference. Both players knowing they can lean on one another by sharing those tough situations is huge, both physically and mentally. Obviously he is feeling a lot less pressure in these situations because he knows he is not the only option.

Another area of improvement, not surprisingly, has been on Edmonton's penalty kill. This is a team that ended last season 29th on the PK and were not much better the two seasons prior, finishing 26th and 27th. At the five game mark they are ranked 10th in the league and the main addition has been Belanger. The other penalty killers upfront, Ryan Jones, Anton Lander, Magnus Paajarvi, Lennart Petrell and Ryan Smyth have all done their parts on the kill but it has been the former Los Angeles King draft pick and Shawn Horcoff who have led the way when the Edmonton has found themselves down a man.

The flexibility of having two similar players definitely has its advantages and allows the coaching staff more freedom to make changes. A perfect example, was having Horcoff start the season in the middle between Paajarvi and Linus Omark. Few games into the season, they look at making some changes and Tom Renney decides to move Horcoff off that line and insert...Eric Belanger. Regardless of whether or not it was the right move, they now have the ability to look at making that sort of switch. The idea is to keep a solid veteran presence between the two Swedes and both players have the ability to fill that role. In the past, that was not the case. The roster lacked quality depth players that brought certain skill sets to the table and they paid dearly for it, on many a night.

Having solid veteran players to fill certain roles on a team is never a bad long as you do not take them out of their comfort zones. Bringing in a player the quality of an Eric Belanger, has the makings of  being one of the better signings this organization has made in the last six years. Give Steve Tambellini and company credit for not just going out and signing that faceoff specialist, ala David Steckel, but rather doing their homework and getting a player that helps the club in many different facets of the game.

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