Trouble Brewing with the Oilers Young Core?

Eric Belanger is your typical “character” NHL player. A veteran of 820 games, and seven different teams, Belanger wasn’t known as a sniper or playmaker, but he was money in the face-off circle and did contribute with 358 points over the course of his career. Belanger is a good guy to have in the room, and ideally should be a presence to help young guys learn the ropes. That was the assumption during his two-year stint with the Oilers. However according to the guy himself, things didn’t quite pan out.

Dustin brown Kings Captain
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)

The Schultz Saga

It all started with an innocent tweet about Justin Schultz, former Oiler, essentially driven out-of-town, and now thriving with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the Stanley Cup Final no less. Before we go on, let me clarify the Schultz situation. He came into Edmonton with a lot of expectation. He was supposed to be that classic puck-moving powerplay force that the Oilers needed. By signing him, they got around actually having to draft a blue-chip defenceman. But, as we all know, it didn’t work out as planned.

Schultz was exposed on most nights. He played too many minutes. He didn’t have the proper support. Was there a certain amount of onus on the player to do better? Absolutely, but I don’t think anyone can argue that he was miscast in Edmonton. He needed a fresh start, there was no question. And I hope Oiler fans are cheering him on, because he isn’t a bad guy. Not every player fits on every team. He was trying to do too much, he had no confidence, and it showed in his game.

Was that a loaded tweet? Whether or not he intended to open a can of worms, Belanger created a firestorm on Twitter. And being the forthright guy he is, he answered the fans questions. Here are some of the juiciest quotes.

The Truth Exposed

“Look at the rest of my career. It’s a graveyard for players. I didn’t want to believe it”. (Referring to playing for the Oilers. He didn’t get another NHL contract. He’s now a TV analyst).

“I tried and all the other veterans too. But the kids did everything they want.”

“Top free agents will not go there”

“I hope they will have success soon after 9 years out of the playoffs. They need major change.”

“That’s why I was brought in but was never given the chance to do it. That’s why I have a problem.” (Referring to being a veteran help).

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

He also said several times that he loved the city and the fans, and that was never the problem. He also didn’t blame former GM Steve Tambellini. When pressed for more details, he refused to name names in terms of actual players in that dressing room. Obviously, speculation will now run rampant. Justin Schultz is a sore subject among Oiler fans, that much is clear. If he was playing terribly, or sitting in the press box, I would imagine they’d feel more validated. To watch him play well, that’s a bit of a dagger, and I understand that.

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

Belanger’s comments about the young players were concerning. He was brought in to be a veteran presence. And he’s probably a great guy, but was he the right kind of veteran to bring in for such a crucial purpose? Similar to Andrew Ference, Belanger was a complimentary player at best. Was he not respected enough in the room to be an impactful voice? Respect is a tricky thing. Egos are a factor in pro sports, perhaps now more than ever. Did some of the Oilers young stars feel that they didn’t have to take direction from a fringe player? Did they feel they were above him?

It’s not Belanger’s fault. He worked hard to be an NHL player. Every guy in this league has. And they all deserve a certain amount of respect for that. But perhaps some of the high draft picks on this team looked at Belanger and said, who are you to tell me what to do? I hope that wouldn’t be the case, but hand millions of dollars to kids in their early 20’s, anoint them as superstars, and that’s the risk you take. Belanger wouldn’t specify exactly what went on or who exactly was the problem. He did mention that he success playing with Jordan Eberle. Should we conclude that Eberle isn’t part of the issues?

The Respect Factor

Unfortunately, though I’d imagine Belanger wasn’t intending to stir the pot, he opened up a door that was waiting to be opened, and now can’t be shut. Rumors and speculation are one thing. To hear from a guy who was actually in that room, well that’s another thing entirely. I defended Taylor Hall earlier this month, as I watched him succeed with Team Canada on the International stage. (He was left off Canada’s World Cup team, however). I still don’t think Hall is the problem, but the truth is, I don’t know for sure. He clearly is able to co-exist with other veterans. But maybe the key is who those veterans are.

If Corey Perry (captain of this years World Championship team) speaks, you listen. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and Hart Trophy winner. So is Sidney Crosby, who played with Hall in last years tournament. Is the answer right in front of us? Does a guy like Hall feel he has to be the leader and the loudest voice unless surrounded with guys who have accomplished more than him? I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer to that. I don’t want to label Belanger as bitter, because that initial tweet didn’t come across that way. But now we know something we didn’t know before. Or maybe we did, only we didn’t really want to believe it.