At even strength... on the penalty kill... Eric Belanger is a guy who could use some help.
In writing about how I might decide to run the Oilers' forward group this coming season (you know, if it were up to me), I was pretty satisfied with three of the groups I'd use to start the season. Smyth - Gagner - Hemsky and Hall - Horcoff - Eberle should both be able to handle themselves quite well against the top lines on other squads, and a protected line of Eager - Nugent-Hopkins - Omark puts the young center in a position to have some offensive success with a solid physical presence riding (with a proverbial) shot-gun to put his mind at ease.
But the remaining group of Petrell - Belanger - Paajarvi leaves something to be desired. The idea was for them to start a lot in the defensive zone, and maybe they'd be up for it, but with Paajarvi entering his sophomore season, and Petrell untested at the NHL level, it sure would be nice to have at least one more player who's established himself in the NHL.
I was at one game where Grier popped his shoulder out in a collision on the end boards. He let out one of those involuntary screams of pain and immediately headed for the bench, holding his arm in place, his clenched face a mask of agony. I don't think play so much as stopped, he just went off and the game carried on without him. As he disappeared down the tunnel I remember thinking "O golly" - I'm pretty sure it was "golly" that was flashing through my brain at that moment - "That's it, his season's done." And the sonofagun was back out there the next period! "Just had to pop it back in place and it felt fine". Maybe so, but I for one would have forgiven him if he'd taken the rest of the night off. Nuh-uh. Happened a few times that one season.
Mike Grier was tough, a big man who loved to hit, and could be counted on to play tough minutes both at even strength and on the penalty kill. Not much has changed. Grier has played in Buffalo for the last two seasons, and has continued to do what he's done his entire career. In both 2009-10 and 2010-11 he led Buffalo's forwards in PK time on ice per game, and that unit stayed in the top half of the league in both seasons. At even strength, Grier had one of the most difficult end-zone start ratios on the club and probably faced middling competition, which is the exact role that I'd like to see filled. His results have been pretty decent:
A better than expected zoneshift, and a Corsi number that's about in line with what you'd expect given the circumstances. I'm not going to pretend that this makes him a superstar, but he's clearly competent, and that just happens to be what I'm looking for.
Stylistically, Grier is exactly the kind of player the Oilers are looking for. He's been among the Sabres' leaders in hits the last two seasons, and has (by all accounts) an incredible pain threshold and work ethic. There aren't many better role models out there than Grier. Would Mike Grier make this team a Cup contender? Of course not. But he can make this club better today without sacrificing any of the future. Hard to beat that.