The Edmonton Oilers have signed defenseman Shawn Belle to a one year contract. It's a two-way deal that will pay Belle $600,000 at the NHL level and $150,000 if he plays in the AHL. Belle's signing is important because it brings the Oilers to forty-five total professional contracts (including unsigned RFA's), only five away from the limit. It's also important because it brings the Oilers one step closer to their goal of having fifty different players drafted in 2003 bound to them in some way. With Belle's name crossed off the list - he was taken 30th overall by the Blues - I believe the Oilers are up to twenty-one (big-time bonus points to anyone who can name all twenty-one without looking it up). I feel a Nigel Dawes signing coming on!
Anyway, Shawn Belle. On the one hand, he's only twenty-five years old, which is still young enough that he could still emerge as a decent NHL defender. On the other hand, he also has a lot of professional experience, with 347 AHL games and another 11 games in the NHL. That's enough for him to be considered an "official" AHL veteran, the fifth such player signed by the Oilers (the other potential Barons who are "official" veterans are Alexandre Giroux, Brad Moran, Ben Ondrus, and Jake Taylor). This is relevant because the Barons can only dress six "official" veterans for any individual game. Thus, signing a guy like Belle is more limiting than signing a guy like Richard Petiot who hasn't quite played enough games to get veteran status. You need your veterans to count. So is Belle worth it? More on that after the jump.
I think Belle may be worth it, but only if you buy into him as being a guy worth developing, rather than a steady top pairing AHL hand. Speed, size and decision-making (i.e. the amount of time it takes to make the right decision) are probably the three biggest things keeping most AHL players from making it to the NHL. Everything I've read about Belle suggests that speed isn't a problem. In fact, it's often listed as one of his strenghts. Size also isn't a concern. Although Belle is only 6'1'', he's also listed at 240 lbs. Now, a 240 lb. man that counts speed as a strength and has the kind of draft pedigree of Shawn Belle is usually in the NHL. This leads me to believe that he must not have very good "hockey sense" or "quick decision-making skills" or whatever you want to call it. If that can be improved, we might have ourselves a player, even an NHL player. If not, we might have ourselves the defensive version of Jean-Francois Jacques, but without the Jacques-ian AHL impact.
Statistically, Belle looks okay but not great. His best offensive season in the AHL was 18 points in 57 games, so offense isn't a strength. Over the last three seasons he's had an even +/- rating on a team that was +17 (6th highest defender on the 2007-08 Aeros), a +19 rating on a team that was +62 (2nd highest defender on the 2008-09 Bulldogs), and a +17 rating on a team that was +89 (4th/5th highest defender on the 2009-10 Bulldogs). +36 over three season seems impressive, but given that all of those teams were varying degrees of good, it seems pretty middling. Although I don't have access to any quality of competition numbers for 2009-10, Gabe Desjardins did run a modified "Willis method" for 2007-08 and 2008-09. Looking at those numbers, Belle finishes third out of seven among defenders with at least fifty games on the 2007-08 Aeros and sixth of six on the 2008-09 Bulldogs. So that's not overly encouraging.
In the end, it looks like Belle is a defensive blueliner who hasn't yet been used in a true "shut-down" role (unless that's what he played last season). That said, the Canadiens thought enough of him to give him an NHL cup of coffee in October and he was clearly a regular top six guy through Hamilton's playoff run in the Spring. I don't think he'll make the NHL roster and I doubt he'll be the best defender in Oklahoma City, but he should help make a pretty green defense at least a little bit better. With Belle signed, here's the depth chart on defense for OKC: