Apparently Ladislav Smid is ready to return to the lineup because Shawn Belle has been sent to the AHL. It's a curious decision considering some of the ineptitude we've seen day-in and day-out from the men on the blue, made more curious by the fact that the coaching staff decided to play Belle and make Jason Strudwick a healthy scratch for the last several games. Jim Vandermeer has also been a healthy scratch at times this season, and is old enough that he's certainly not a part of Edmonton's future. Belle, on the other hand, is only twenty-five, and could still emerge as a useful piece of the rebuilt Oilers. And... Belle was performing pretty well! The sample is very small, but in four games Belle was leading the team in EV Corsi despite having the worst Zone Start ratio on the club. We can't conclude much of anything from such a small number of games, but the results are promising enough that it sure would have been nice to see if they had some sustain. Further, even though he didn't get much of a chance on the power play, he did lead the AHL in points by a defenseman at the time of his recall, so it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't contribute more there than Ladislav Smid. In addition, Belle's been a pretty good player by eye, or at least, I've generally liked him. So what's up with the demotion?
The Oilers aren't the first team to take a pass on Belle. The Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, and St. Louis Blues all had Belle in the organization, and all of them played him in the minors. Even in the four mostly good games he played with the Oilers, I have noticed some weaknesses in Belle's game. In the last couple of games, Belle's decision-making has been a bit slower than it needs to be, particularly when he's going back for a puck that's been dumped into his own zone. In last night's game, he was coasting back to touch-up for an icing, when suddenly the Coyote skater blew past him to get control of the puck. That lack of awareness was a pattern that was starting to emerge in Belle's game over his four-game stint. That lack of awareness was also evident at times in his own-zone coverage. When the opposition controlled the puck in the Oilers' zone, Belle seemed to have trouble identifying which player was his responsibility and getting there on time. The problem wasn't as bad with him as, say, Jason Strudwick, but it's almost certainly something that he'd need to improve in order to become an every-day NHL defender on a good team.
But that's the thing. The Oilers aren't a good team. In fact, they're a very, very bad team, and one of the reasons for this is that they have some very, very bad players, players that Belle could easily replace. I understand that Belle has been passed over many times before, and maybe the only reason he has an argument at being an NHL player with the Oilers is that the Oilers aren't very good, but wouldn't it sort of behoove the Oilers to find out? Considering he actually makes the blue-line better, it seems like a slam dunk!
There are really only two reasons that Belle might be sent down. The first is that the Oilers feel the other twenty-three guys on the roster are more valuable to the hockey team. That option is too frightening to contemplate, so I'm going to go ahead and hope that it's option number two: money. Carrying Belle on the Oilers, and playing, say, Vandermeer with the Barons would cost the Oilers an extra $450,000 (well, less than that actually; that would be the cost over a full season). In some ways, that seems like small potatoes, especially considering the owner is supposed to be Mr. Money Bags. Then again, that same owner is crying poor in the media, and the Oilers have the 27th "highest" NHL payroll (although that doesn't include Mr. Sheldon Souray).
So it's either incompetence or frugality. Personally, I hope that it's the second option, but I think that it's probably the first (it's a sad day when Steve Tambellini's "reaction" is probably pretty close to Steve Tambellini's reaction. The demotion of Shawn Belle is a (very) small thing, but it serves as just one more piece of evidence that while the Oilers really are rebuilding, their managers are also using that fact as an excuse for their own incompetence.