THE TEAM TODAY: Quick on the Draw
Free agent signing Eric Belanger brings skill, experience to Oilers' faceoff needs
QUICK ON THE DRAWDeep 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
NEW ADDITIONSFollowing 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.”
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
OILERS at WILD