One thing that fans of this team have agreed on for a long time is the need for a veteran center who can be counted on to play against reasonable competition at even strength, play an important role on the penalty kill, and get on the ice for important defensive zone faceoffs. Today, the Oilers have finally plugged the hole with 33 year-old Éric Bélanger, who has been signed to a three-year contract that will pay him $1,750,000 per year. Is Bélanger the right man for the job?
Can he play against reasonable competition at even strength? He most certainly can. Bélanger spent last season with the Phoenix Coyotes where he had most of his end-zone starts in the defensive zone (53.4%), and moved the puck in the right direction (just 50.6% of his end-zone stops in the defensive zone, a raw Corsi of +5.06 per sixty minutes, and a positive Relative Corsi), all while playing against reasonably difficult opposition (4th or 12 regular forwards in +/- quality of competition, 3/12 in Relative Corsi quality of competition, and 5/12 in Corsi quality of competition). He was also a respectable even strength scorer with a scoring rate of 1.85 points per sixty minutes. Prior to last year, he played a very similar role and delivered very similar results for the Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals. For a team that plays their first unit in power vs. power, Bélanger is an ideal player to take on second-toughs.
Can he play an important role on the penalty kill? He can. Last season, Bélanger had the fourth-most ice time per game among regular Coyote forwards. He was also had the fourth-most ice time per game in 2009-10 with the Capitals after being traded from Minnesota where he had the third-most ice time per game in both 2009-10 and 2008-09. With the Coyotes, he had the second best shots-against rate among the regular PK forwards, although with the Wild in 2008-09, his was the second-worst (of five players who averaged at least one minute per game), so it's not all sunshine. Still, he's familiar with the role, and has been among the top four options everywhere he's gone.
Can he win faceoffs? He can. So far in his career, he's taken 8,429 faceoffs at even strength, and he's won 53.9% of them. He's taken 1,881 faceoffs on the penalty kill, and won 47.0% of the time on those. In the last three years, the numbers are even better. Bélanger's taken 2,690 faceoffs and won 54.9% at even strength, and he's taken 425 on the penalty kill and won 46.4%. That's a long track record of success, so he can say with a great deal of confidence that Belanger makes the team better in this area.
So what are the drawbacks? So far as I can tell, there's just one, and that's age. Bélanger turned 33 in December, so he'll be 36 years old by the time this contract ends, and it's quite possible that his performance will dip before we reach the end of the contract. But even if that happens, Bélanger will still likely be an adequate fourth line center, which given the money, isn't a bad risk at all. This is definitely the Oilers' best deal of the day.