2011 Free Agency: Eric Belanger
Although not the sexiest name on the free agent market, Eric Belanger is a player who is capable of providing a role that the San Jose Sharks will need to fill during the opening hours of free agency. A hard minutes player like Joel Ward, Belanger would be able to come into San Jose and help shore up the League's 24th ranked penalty kill that lost Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers this offseason while contributing offensively in what would be a third line role.
Furthermore, the addition of Belanger would allow the Sharks to promote Joe Pavelski into a top six role if they are unable or unwilling to spend cap space on a top six winger to play with Joe Thornton, wish to reunite HTML on San Jose's top line, or any other number of factors that can be thought of as the team makes a move toward July 1st.
In the National Hockey League, centers and defenseman are the two most sought after commodities. Teams who are strong down the middle have numerous options available to them-- as the saying goes, you can never have too many centerman. Belanger provides a legitimate third line option for San Jose that allows for greater roster flexibility throughout the season, something that is a definite plus when the inevitable injuries crop up throughout the year.
Belanger's talents in the defensive end of the ice at even strength cannot be overstated-- last year he saw the fourth highest quality competition with Phoenix, the sixth toughest zone starts, was a cool 53.3% from the faceoff circle, and had the third best +/- per 60 minutes on his team (+0.76). In other words, he played the toughs, won his draws, pushed the play in the right direction, and ended up on the positive side of the ledger in regards to when goals were scored. Tack on 1:47 in SH TOI per game (fourth on the team) and you have a player who is a perfect fit for a Sharks team that needs some defensive grit to go along with their offensive panache.
But make no mistake, Belanger's talents in the offensive zone should not be overlooked. Over the last four seasons with offensive powerhouses like the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes (snark levels rising), Belanger has been a consistent 35 point per year player who is good for 13 goals per year. Even at the age of 33 years old I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Belanger to at least meet (if not exceed) those totals with a much improved team surrounding him in San Jose.
Belanger reminds me of Manny Malhotra in many ways-- a left handed centerman whose greatest contributions to a team come in the defensive realm, but one whose offensive capabilities cannot be overlooked. With the center position an important part of any team's success, and the Sharks requiring penalty kill help this offseason, Belanger is an intriguing choice in free agency for a team like San Jose that doesn't like to splurge on July 1st.
He would add some teeth to San Jose's third line, even if he doesn't have many left.
Contract: Two year deal worth $1.8 MM per year.
Role: Plays on the third line either as a center or wing, contributing heavily on the penalty kill.