This afternoon the Oilers announced the signing of defenceman Anton Belov to a one year contract which, according to TSN's Ryan Rishaug, is expected to have a cap hit of $1.525M including bonuses. Belov, who is listed at 6'4" and 216 lbs, has spent the last five years playing with Omsk in the KHL and set career highs in goals, assists, and points this season recording totals of 9 goals and 17 assists for 26 points. Those totals, as well as his performance at the recent World Championships where he scored a goal and added three assists and was a +8 for the Russian team, got the attention of a number of NHL teams, as many as seven according to his agent, including the Penguins. But when the dust settled it was the Oilers who came out on top.
At first glance this certainly looks like a low risk move that has the potential to pay off very nicely. He had a nice season and the cap hit is entirely reasonable, but of course looks can be deceiving, so lets take a closer look. Below you'll find Belov's career statistic courtesy of elitleprospects.com.
The first thing that jumps off the page for me is his totals last season compared to any other season of his career, especially the season prior where he recorded only six assists in 50 games. Interestingly, Belov tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (it was later determined he was taking them unknowingly, whatever that means exactly) after the worst season of his career and then proceeded to have the best season of his career. Very odd. Either way something seems to be out of whack with his numbers in one of those two seasons, or possibly both.
Looking at the numbers alone it's very hard to figure out what Belov's true talent level is. Was he trending towards the total he put up this season and the 11/12 season was the anomaly, or is he is player who lands between the last two years, something like the seasons before would indicate?
The table below shows Belov's numbers over the last four seasons, as well as the point total for Omsk's highest scoring defenceman and the team's total goals. As you can see Belov's total this season is comparable to what the team leader has had in past seasons, and there wasn't a spike in the total team offence this season that might explain the sudden spike in his offensive production.
|Season||Belov Pts||Leader||Total Goals|
So what reason might there be for the increase this season?
One possibility is the lockout. Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Nikita Nikitin spent his lockout playing Omsk, and even though he returned to the NHL when the lockout ended finished tied for second among team defencemen with 14 points in 33 games. With 26 points Belov almost doubled the next highest scoring defenceman, but if he spent a significant amount of time skating alongside Nikitin that could explain his increased offense. There are two problems with that though: a) I don't know who he was playing with, and b) Belov outproduced Nikitin at a point per game rate so it would seem that even if Nikitin did help, that alone doesn't fully explain things.
There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer either way. At least not one I can find. I'm inclined then to think that Belov had a very good year (that's obvious), but not one that I would expect him to exceed, or likely even match, in future seasons. If his true skill level is, for arguments sake, 20 points a season, what does that leave the Oilers with? Unfortunately there aren't a lot of defencemen in their mid twenties who've recently left the KHL to which we can compare Belov (I restricted the search to Soviet born players because European born wasn't an options and I couldn't think of other players matching the criteria, if I'm missing someone please let me know), but there are a couple that have done the same over the last two seasons: Nitikin and Alexiei Emelin.
Based on comments from Craig MacTavish, that might just be that is the kind of player they think Belov is. Mactavish saw him personally at the recent World Championships so this isn't a move he's making based on second hand knowledge, although it might be a little bit of "seen him good." Terry Jones has a story on Belov that includes a number of quotes from the Oilers General Manager that includeds the following:
"I expect him to make the team. We’re planning on starting the season with him with us next season."
"It’s a move to trying to build more mobility into our back end. He moves the puck well. He makes quick decisions with the puck. He has a high skill level and competes hard. The expectation is that he’s going to come in and help us. He’s big. He plays heavy. He’s got some toughness," added MacTavish.
Asked if he saw Belov as a No. 3, 4, 5 or 6 defenceman, MacTavish said "I think he has a chance to be any one of those."
MacTavish has gushed about Oskar Klefbom repeatedly since taking the job. So much so that I'm all but ready to pencil him into the opening night lineup, but Belov clutters the Oilers defence just a little, enough to make me wonder if he isn't an insurance policy for Klefbom should he falter, or need a couple months in the AHL before joining the big team. If that is the case then I love this deal. And if not it's still a hard deal to dislike. There are question marks with Belov that need to be answered but the only risk is a little bit of money, and there appears to be a significant upside to the deal. This looks like a risk worth taking.