When the Edmonton Oilers called on the first day of free agency, Eric Belanger sensed he’d be moving to Western Canada.
It was more than just the obvious reasons.
Family comes first
It shouldn’t come as a surprise what Eric Belanger’s favourite place to visit is since he signed with the Oilers. That would be the West Edmonton Mall. Not exactly a spot you’d expect a professional hockey player to continually travel to, but when you have two daughters, the choice is obvious.
"Since I’ve been here, and having two young girls, it’s the mall. I mean to just get away from the game, see the smile on their faces when they go there. It’s always nice to see. There’s other things besides hockey and when you have kids you realize that."
— Tony Care
The 33-year-old Quebec native is one of the better faceoff men in the NHL, and is equally effective killing penalties — two areas the Oilers failed miserably in last season.
But as Belanger signed his three-year, $5.25-million US contract, the Quebec native didn’t have to hear the words "you need to help out our young players."
He already knew that was part of his job description.
Those "young players," would be Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi — three sophomores pegged as the franchise’s future, in addition to 2011 No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will start the season with the big club.
Belanger, along with the return of Edmonton’s prodigal son Ryan Smyth, understands that if the Oilers are to take the next step in their evolution, the prized talents must do a better job of handling the grind of an 82-game NHL season.
"When you play junior you want to score goals, you want to have points so you can get drafted," Belanger told CBCSports.ca in a phone interview. "So you don’t really pay attention to that. I have to be able to bring that leadership in the room. Those guys probably expect it because I remember when I first started in the league, I was looking at guys with many years of experience and you expect those guys to be the leader.
"But being a leader, it’s not only talking in the room, it’s doing the things on the ice, especially through rough times. There’s going to be tough times throughout the season, and I think that’s where guys like us can calm things down."
An effective way of minimizing the difficult stretches is to take advantage of what the 10-year veteran does best.
Last season, the Oilers ranked dead last in faceoff percentage (44.2), and 29th as a penalty-killing unit (77.0) — ahead of only the lowly Colorado Avalanche.
It’s no coincidence Edmonton has struggled on faceoffs since trading Jarret Stoll to Los Angeles, and letting specialist Marty Reasoner go three years ago.
During stops in Los Angeles, Carolina, Atlanta, Minnesota, Washington and Phoenix, Belanger has made his living draped over the red dot.
Playing with the Coyotes a year ago, Belanger converted 55.3 per cent of the 1,297 draws he took. In fact, he’s been better than 50 per cent for the last three years.
Belanger believes that, combined with Shawn Horcoff, he can help return the Oilers to prominence, when they were second in faceoff percentage (53.4) en route to their 2006 trip to the Stanley Cup final.
"I know they brought me here for my experience and faceoff ability, and different roles I can have on the team," he said. "They were last in the league last year and it’s such a key part of the game right now.
"When you have puck possession more than 50 per cent of the time, you’re not chasing the game. Special teams is very important to get the puck right away, especially in defensive zone faceoffs, so hopefully I can bring some confidence to the centremen position."
Belanger has played alongside Hall, Smyth and winger Ryan Jones during separate points of the pre-season, but still doesn’t know who he’ll skate with once the regular season starts. He does, however, make it clear what the team’s plan is for this season.
"We want to make the playoffs," said Belanger. "That’s the goal and if everybody stays healthy and we all have good seasons, I don’t see why we can't be in the playoffs. We have to believe in our abilities, we have to believe that we’re going to be a playoff team. It’s a mentality we have to bring every night, ever practice with every little thing that we do. I think that’s why we come to play."
This is the third instalment in a series of profiles on newly arrived players with the seven Canadian-based teams as CBCSports.ca previews the 2011-12 NHL season. You can also read about Winnipeg’s Eric Fehr and Calgary forward Lee Stempniak.