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THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: Quick on the Draw

Free agent signing Eric Belanger brings skill, experience to Oilers' faceoff needs

Tuesday, 04.10.2011 / 5:25 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: Quick on the Draw

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4

QUICK ON THE DRAW

Deep in the wilderness in picturesque Jasper, AB, it’s become clear where the Oilers will build this season.

When Eric Belanger signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract with Edmonton back on Jul. 1, his value was obvious.

The Oilers’ 30th place standing was backed by an equally as disastrous run in the faceoff circle; the team proved to be the league’s least-capable, winning only 44.2-percent, while the NHL-leading Vancouver Canucks were setting the pace at 54.9-percent.

“I'm going to try and help the percentage go up,” Belanger said. “I think it's something you have to do as a team; the wingers, everyone on the ice has to help secure the win.”

Belanger, 33, will provide an enormous boost. Winning 717 draws on 1297 attempts last season, he concluded the 2010-11 campaign with a 55.3-percent success rate; which put the 12-year veteran in 19th place among the NHL’s regular middlemen.

No. 20 is also keen to pass on his wisdom to the Oilers’ up-and-coming stars, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander, Sam Gagner and others.

“Everything I can, I'm hoping,” Belanger laughed when asked about what he can teach. “I hope they pick up on some of the things I'm doing. I told them, ‘I'm going to be around all the time. Don’t be shy to come ask questions or to work on your skill in practice.’”

“I'm not going to go every day and bother them, but I’ll always be around and will be eager to teach them whatever I can during practices or even in games, since I have the experience. I want to help everyone as much as I possibly can.”

Nugent-Hopkins, who starred with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels as an all-encompassing premier pivot, couldn’t say enough about Belanger’s incredible and ever-willing mentorship.

“[Belanger and Shawn Horcoff] have both been really great,” he explained. “They've been awesome in practice and in games in helping me out. Whenever I'm taking a faceoff or am up against a guy I'm not sure about, or have had trouble with earlier, I can go to them and ask them about what I should do.

“They’ll always give me some advice; it really helps. In practice we'll go head-to-head with each other. Both have been great for me.”

“It's important,” Head Coach Tom Renney added. “When you have guys with experience and wisdom in your lineup because of what they've done in the past, it's real crucial. It's coaching that a coach can't do.”

Winning at only a 48.3-percent clip 2010-11, the captain’s campaign didn’t meet expectations. But it’s his passion and dedication to reclaim past success that’s helped preserve the 33-year-old’s expertise.

Combined, the Oilers’ best men have played 22 NHL seasons. It’s helped them develop all-star attitudes in leadership and know-how, says Renney.

“That's where teammates can really step up and help a young guy complete the loop as a player, and they’re a pair of veteran guys that are clearly trying to help a young guy get better. That’s why Horc has the ‘C’ and Belanger will, naturally, be a leader on his team.”

Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, is a wide-eyed rookie, looking to develop his lethal two-way arsenal into an NHL-ready skill-set across the board and within the rink’s nine circles.

“I was pretty good, probably Top 2 on my team [in Red Deer],” he said. “I ended the season at about 60-percent last year. I always thought that I was really good on draws, but that’s something you can always work on.”

The NHL’s pre-season was unique, but a steep learning curve as well.

“It's a little more challenging in the NHL,” Nugent-Hopkins added. “Guys are a lot stronger, so you've got to put more weight on your stick and power through.”

Mastering your opponent is one step, but learning the game’s unwritten rules can, as Belanger explains, “provide an edge.”

“Every linesman has their own unique style, and you know how much you can get away with, with certain guys. That helps a lot. When you have them on your side and you know what their tendencies are, you can pick up a lot over your career.”

The Oilers’ climb from 30th ought to be mirrored in every column, assuming the others donning orange and blue exact a Belanger-like approach in guiding youth through experience and desire.

“The expectations are certainly higher this year,” he said. "In bringing in some older guys and having the younger guys be another year older with more experience, you can see they want to take the next step.

“The approach is very serious and we want to make the post-season. That's everybody's goal and we know we can be there.”
 
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

MONDAY, OCTOBER 3

NEW ADDITIONS

Following a back-to-back road swing in which the Oilers halved success vs. Minnesota and Vancouver, the team returned home, closing the 2011 pre-season schedule.

Head Coach Tom Renney and General Manager Steve Tambellini went to work right away, cutting the Oilers’ roster down to 27 players on Sunday evening.

IN AND OUT

Among those who were assigned, six-year veteran Gilbert Brule was put on waivers. The 24-year-old centre will report to the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons on Tuesday at 10:00am, assuming he goes unclaimed by another NHL club.

Tambellini spoke with 630 CHED’s Dan Tencer on Sunday, commenting on the method behind Brule’s assignment and what Anton Lander did during camp to earn his role.

“[Brule was] competing for the bottom six part of our hockey club,” he said. “We need him to play some minutes, we need him to play some quality minutes; power-play, penalty killing and playing with high-end offensive players.

“These are important situations to help get his game back.

“Right now Tom (Renney) is looking for certain things.”

Lander, 21, scored two goals and four points in four pre-season contests, which was good enough for fourth-best on the team, behind only Taylor Hall, Linus Omark, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Through hard work, passion and the desire to crack this year’s squad, Lander made an immediate impression.

“When I was working out this summer, my goal was to make the team,” he said. “I worked hard this summer and there are still a few more days to work. It's hard work to make the team, but I’ve been excited the entire time.

“You have to believe in your ability. If you don't do that, you miss a lot. I'm really happy about this year.”

Tambellini agreed, adding that Lander has shown more than Brule in camp, which includes several, high-quality NHL-ready attributes.

Anton Lander is here right now and he's probably been one of our top forwards, I'd say, for the last couple pre-season games,” he said.” He's used to killing penalties and his faceoffs are pretty good at the NHL level right now. I think the coaches feel as though he's more equipped to handle what they need him to do.”

“He's made it so far,” Renney added. “It's a long season and anything can happen. He's a good teammate, he understands the game, has a hockey IQ that I'd suggest is very good.”

ON THE BLUELINE

It was a costly road trip for the Oilers, losing three blueliners in the team’s 4-3 shootout win over the Wild: Taylor Chorney, Ladislav Smid and, of course, Taylor Fedun in a scary incident that has likely charged the 23-year-old his season.

Under extreme circumstances, new opportunities arose. Jeff Petry, who played in 35 games last season, has made the club to start the 2011-12 campaign in Edmonton.

“It's good to start up here,” he said. “You can't ever let up, you've got to keep working day-in and day-out to prove your worth. I know it will be a tough task to stay up here, but I’m working hard and making sure that I’m doing what I need to do to be here the entire year. It's going to be a challenge, but I'm ready.

“I was working hard and battling to earn that one spot,” added. “To be here and to be in the opening night lineup is awesome. I hope I've proved to the coaches that I deserve to be here. As each day goes on, I'll continue go grow, get better and do my best for the team.”

Petry recorded a goal and four assists with the big club last season, adding 24 points with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons before getting called up late in 2010-11.

It was a solid steppingstone, but Petry’s camp experience has helped him improve leaps and bounds over last season.

“It's improved a lot since Day 1,” he said. “Each day on the ice you feel better, so I've got to continue to do that throughout the year and especially over the next couple weeks. It’s an important stretch to make sure I’m maintaining a high level.”

Jul. 1 free agent signee Corey Potter has also cracked the lineup. He played well throughout camp and starred in the pre-season with his dedicated, two-way style. Backend circumstances helped him secure a role, but Potter is thrilled nonetheless.

“We've still got nine [defencemen] here, so I've still got a lot of work ahead of me to make this squad.

“I think the pre-season went pretty good. I used my experience; I've been around for a while. I tried to stay calm and I think I stuck to my game-plan and played pretty well.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Following practice, the Oilers bussed to Jasper, AB where the team will spend three days bonding and practicing in preparation for next Sunday’s home- and season-opener vs. Pittsburgh.

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1

OILERS at WILD
AT THE MORNING SKATE


Following an emotional, come-from-behind shootout win over the Minnesota Wild one night ago, the Edmonton Oilers hopped on the team charter and darted back across the border, landing in Vancouver at approximately 2:00am local time.

As such, the Oilers opted for a noon-hour meeting at the team’s hotel, addressing the media prior to the pre-season closer vs. the Canucks.

Three players did skate this morning at the unusually chilly Rogers Arena: Ryan Keller, Gilbert Brule and Nikolai Khabibulin. The 38-year-old veteran netminder will start in net.

Tonight the Oilers will be challenged to cap the 2011 pre-season schedule with another victory. Yesterday in Minnesota, Taylor Fedun, Taylor Chorney and Ladislav Smid were all forced to leave and will be unavailable for this evening's divisional matchup.

Tom Gilbert, Theo Peckham and Jeff Petry will assume duty in this back-to-back encounter. Andy Sutton, Cam Barker and Corey Potter will draw back in to help cure the Oilers’ depleted corps.

“Legs won't be a problem,” Peckham said. “We're in the National Hockey League. If you can't handle playing those minutes, then you shouldn't be here.

“We're playing against a pretty much all-NHL roster tonight. It's another chance to prove ourselves.

"It’s exciting.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Head Coach Tom Renney agreed with the excitement, adding that his incoming cuts assignment has become more challenging as cut-down day approaches.

“It's an important night for the guys that are playing. Those that won't will have had to have done their job in order to give me something to think about over the next few days.

“It's an exciting time. It's disconcerting for them, but for me as a coach, it's fun. You get a chance to evaluate guys under these types of circumstances. I'm really happy that Vancouver's playing a really good team.”

Indeed they will be. Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows will patrol the Canucks’ top unit, while Marco Sturm, Cody Hodgson, Mikael Samuelsson, Manny Malhotra and a host of others will provide secondary support on the attack.

It looks less like a pre-season roster and more like Vancouver’s opening night lineup.

“[Vancouver has] a very veteran lineup playing, and obviously they're a really good team, so it's going to be a good challenge,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will be getting one last opportunity to showcase his skill-set in the pre-season.

“I feel pretty good. I can't be riding off of the last game. I need to take a new approach to this one. I'm very excited; this is my last chance to show what I have in the pre-season.”

Nugent-Hopkins is slated to play with Ryan Smyth once more, which has the budding 18-year-old especially excited.

“I think I've been doing pretty well in camp,” he said. “I'm happy with the way things have gone. I've had some great linemates to play with, and playing with veteran guys like that makes it easier to play.

“I've been playing with Ryan Smyth a little bit and he's a great guy to learn from. Even Taylor (Hall) and Jordan (Eberle) are great guys to learn from, too, because they went through this last year.”

RNH has said it several times over, but playing within his limits has helped him achieve such early success. The dynamically talented centre has notched one goal and six points in only four pre-season contests to this point.

Upholding that trend has become Nugent-Hopkins’ mantra.

“I'm going to try and play my game as well as I can and see what happens. I don't think I can be in awe [of the Canucks]. I need to take [Daniel and Henrik Sedin] as two very good players that I'm playing against, and try to do the best I can.”

Renney can’t help but notice his young star’s extreme skill-set, noting that he’ll need to bring that and then some tonight to earn his role.

“It's a good thing I penciled him in to play tonight,” Renney laughed. “He's done a good job. It will be good for him and he'll be an asset to us at the same time. We'll see how he makes out.”

FEDUN UPDATE

It was an ugly scene last night at the Xcel Energy Center.

Although the Oilers prevailed 4-3 in a shootout, 23-year-old blueliner Taylor Fedun crashed violently into the end-boards behind Devan Dubnyk, prompting screams to be yelled, medical personnel and an ambulance to attend to the young rookie.

As media later learned, Fedun endured a complex fracture of the right femur, which required immediate surgical attention.

“Taylor had surgery late last night,” Renney explained. “He's in Minneapolis now and he'll stay there for a bit. We're not sure exactly how long, but he'll be there for a little while, anyway, to recover and make sure that things have done as well as everyone has been told.

“I think he's doing fine. As you can imagine, it was pretty traumatic for him. He's going to have family around him pretty quick and we'll help him with that, too.

“We’ll certainly honour our commitment to him, in terms of being there for him and his family. The grey area now is how will he be as a player [in the future].”

No matter what the circumstance or best-case scenario, Fedun is looking ahead to a long road to recovery, sadly. A season is most likely, but further speculation wouldn’t be fair.

Whether it’s a year or longer, Renney and the Edmonton Oilers will be there, helping to develop Fedun’s special skill when he returns.

“He's worth it,” Renney said. “He's a great player. He's very intelligent, he's got high hockey IQ. You can see the wherewithal that he has on the ice with and without the puck. He navigates the game really well.

“We're still excited about him. That's the important thing. We're still excited about him as a player.”

Click here to send your get-well wishes to Taylor Fedun


OILERS 4 - WILD 3 (SO)

The Edmonton Oilers skated step-for-step with the lineup of the reigning Western Conference Champions for nearly the entire game, but three third-period goals by the Canucks handed the Oilers a 4-1 loss to conclude the 2011 NHL pre-season schedule. 

READ MORE >>


-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
 

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