EDMONTON - You can see the optimism and excitement in Edmonton Oilers camp this year, it’s written all over their faceoffs.
Newly acquired centre Eric Belanger went 64% on the dot Tuesday against Minnesota, one of the better faceoff teams in the NHL, and for an Oilers club that spent the last three years losing more draws than the Koala Gunfighting Team, that’s huge.
“Everybody must have enjoyed that for a change,” grinned head coach Tom Renney, who’s been dying for help in that department. “We need it and my hope there is that (winning faceoffs) is kind of contagious and becomes an internal pride thing, that other guys want to do likewise.
“It helps to work with a guy who’s been very successful and tap into that knowledge.”
Among the league’s workhorses in that department (players with 1,000 or more draws last year) Belanger is ranked 13th at 55.3%.
Not only has it been a while since the Oilers had a player who was 13th in the NHL in anything, but there also seems to be a direct corelation between success in the faceoff circle and success in the standings:
Last season: Dead last in faceoff percentage (44.2%), dead last in the standings.
Two years ago: Dead last in faceoffs (46.4%), dead last in the standings.
Three years ago: 25th in faceoffs (47.9%), 21st in the standings.
Four years ago: 12th in faceoffs (50.5%), 19th in the standings.
Five years ago, second in faceoffs (53.4%), lost in Cup final.
“When you’re winning faceoffs, it makes everybody a better player,” said Belanger. “You don’t waste half of your shift trying to get the puck back. you can play on the offensive side of the game a little bit more.”
Belanger’s presence should also make Shawn Horcoff a more effective player. Now that he doesn’t have to be out there for every important defensive-zone faceoff, he’ll be fresher for his own shifts.
“My hope is just that,” said Renney.
What makes a good faceoff guy? The Oilers have been wondering that since the days when they wre taking Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner for granted.
Belanger says there’s no secret to being a great faceoff guy. In fact, he’s not even sure why he’s so good at it.
“I don’t know if it’s something you’re born with or what. I just looked at a lot of tapes, learned the opponent’s tendencies, the way linesmen drop pucks. It all comes with experience. I can’t really pinpoint one thing that I did.
“I think it started back in junior. I realized back then that it was such an important part of the game. Everybody can score goals and get points, but if you want to separate yourself from other players and make it to the NHL, you have to look at yur ability to play defence and to win faceoffs and do the little things that other guys don’t do.
“That gave me a chance to play on every line. Some guys have to play on the top two lines and it’s hard to make it in the NHL that way. For me it was something that helped me get into the NHL and since then I’ve taken a lot of pride in winning faceoffs.”