Callin’ It As I See It: A Mini-Series – Part V: Bela(c)k-ing

A five-or-so-part series on a variety of rather hot-button issues concerning the Nashville Predators that have been swirling around in my head lately.
Introduction
>> Part I >> Part II >> Part III >> Part IV

Washington Capitals bruiser, Donald Brasheer gets in an early left hook seconds before being decked and seeing little birdies flying around his head, courtesy of the Wade Belak, in Beezer’s most memorable fight as a Nashville Predator on March 10, 2009 (Photo: Associated Press).

Gettin’ a Little Defensive
I really wanted to have this penultimate post in the series finished up by last weekend, but to be honest, I’ve been a little conflicted. One of the reasons I’ve taken so long to get it hammered out this is the fact that as I began writing, I realized how much I really do like Nashville Predators forward Wade Belak, so it’s been kinda hard bringing myself to come down on him as I had originally intended — well, that and the fact that I’m not all that excited about the prospect of getting on his bad side. After all, as a little guy I learned a long time ago that the best way to keep from being picked on was to befriend the big, tough dudes. The last thing you wanna do is piss ‘em off.

So with apologies to Big Kev, I’ve decided to go lightly on ol’ Beezer, ya’ know, maybe try to appeal to his sense of conscience, his competitive will, and professional pride.

Yeah, I think that’d probably be better than asking when he was gonna start wearing a skirt during home games, which would more than likely land me in dutch with the feminists, too.

Okay then…is there anyone else out there I can offend before we get started here?

 

Would-Be(lak) Enforcer
The Predators obtained Belak at the mid-point of last season for one reason and one reason only; and here’s a hint: it wasn’t his skating ability, scoring touch, or anything related to defense. Well, check that — perhaps you could say that there was a bit of defense involved; just not the conventional kind.

In his thirteen NHL seasons, Belak has developed a well-known reputation as an ‘enforcer’ – that long-standing, controversial, NHL Hockey code-driven role, typically reserved for guys whose fighting acumen outweigh their ability to accomplish much else on the ice. He has also been fairly responsible, defensively, in his time in Nashville, sporting ‘only’ a -1 plus/minus rating in 74 games since his arrival at the end of November, 2008. Head Coach, Barry Trotz has even used Belak occasionally on the blueline during his brief time with the team.

So, you may be asking, ‘what’s the problem, then?’ Belak is indeed a solid veteran who must be doing something right; after all, you don’t often find forwards averaging less than two points a season that manage to stay in the league for a Baker’s Dozen years.

And on that point you would be absolutely right on.

Belak is as big a role-player as the Predators employ on their roster, however there’s this thing about role-players; they only have true value if they effectively play the roles to which they’re ascribed. Also, in the situation the Nashville Predators find themselves: cash-strapped and fighting for a playoff spot that means far more than simple pride, the inclusion or exclusion of role-players must be scrutinized to the enth degree — there’s just no room on this team for players who don’t do what they’re supposed to do — especially if they can’t ‘do’ anything else.

Unfortunately, Belak is very dangerously bordering that classification.

Temporary Upgrade
Belak became a Predator because former enforcer, Darcy Hordichuk thought he deserved more consideration (and pay) as a legitimate offensive forward. So Hordi left after the 2007-08 season to sign as a free agent with Vancouver. Trotzy & Poille politely encouraged him not to let the screen door hit him in the keester on his way out.

And just as an aside, there’s one thing you can say for Belak, that apparently Darcy hasn’t figured out just yet: you may have more upside than the next guy of your ilk, but generally speaking, most enforcers gain that tag for a reason, and most ‘misunderstood’ enforcers like Hordichuk do themselves a disservice by ignoring the fact. Belak is comfortable with whom he is and the role he plays; apparently, Hordichuk was not.

Case in point, a year-and-a-half ago, Hordichuk not-so privately announced he was leaving Nashville because he felt type-casted, and wanted the opportunity to show he deserved more general playing time in an offensive role. I’m assuming that was one of the assurances he received in signing with Vancouver.

At a little more than the two-thirds mark of comparative time spent with both teams, I think it’s fair to make a comparison between his output in Music City and that of the time he’s spent in Vancouver.

Over his three seasons with the Preds, Hordichuk played 172 games– a 57-games-per-season average. As of this week He now has played 118 games in one-and-three-quarter season in Vancouver – a 59-games-per-season average. From that comparative sample, here’s how his playing time and production breaks down:

Average ice time in Nashville: 5:41 per game
Average ice time with
Vancouver: 5:56 per game
Net difference: +15 seconds

Average point production with Nashville: 6.6 points per season
Average point production for
Vancouver: 3.5 points per season
Net difference:  -3.1 points

So…how are those ‘greener pastures’ working out for ya, Hordi?

Belak doesn’t seem to suffer from such delusions. He knows who he is and why he’s an NHL player. This is despite the fact that either his game changed severely, or he was one of the biggest busts of scouting in the history of the league.

Beez was surprisingly the 12th overall selection in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, courtesy of the Quebec Nordiques, one season prior to their relocation to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. However, just from judging the number alone, it’s hard to figure why he was selected so high. He has never topped 18 points in a season; not in Juniors, the AHL or the NHL (and has only come close to breaking double figures once in the latter). However he did average more than three penalty minutes per game over his two years in Saskatoon prior to being drafted by Quebec.

That number would increase gradually as Belak worked his way up, becoming a full-time NHL’er with Calgary in 1998-99, as the die was apparently cast on his role as a professional hockey player from that point forward.

Since then he’s been one of the most consistently feared brawlers in the game. His arrival in Nashville was met with much delight to the fans, as according to his ‘fight card’ on Hockeyfights.com, Belak went 7-2-1, including a rare, actual temporary KO of another legendary NHL heavyweight and longtime rival, Donald Brasheer of the Washington Capitals.

That fight — particularly in view of the way that Brasheer had for years abused Predators players (including Darcy Hordichuk) — cemented the love between the Preds fans and the big 6’5″/222 lb. redhead.

To that end, he is still a very popular player. He’s involved in the community and even co-hosts a local sportstalk radio show at a Nashville restaurant during the season when the team is at home.

Belak is a favorite in the dressing room too; always the class clown, prankster, and prime quote machine for the media. One could almost envision a standup comedy career in the offing once his playing days are over.

However one has to wonder how much of a toll thirteen years in the league has taken on a hockey fighter who can’t seem to win hockey fights anymore.

As well as I could determine via Hockeyfights.com, Belak is on the way to his first losing fight record since 2005-06 (and that was only by one ‘decision’); only the second time in his entire 13-year career.

To make matters worse, he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s been a healthy scratch for Nashville’s first three games since the return from the Olympic Break, and in fact hasn’t played since their March 12th game at New Jersey.

So, one has to ask oneself, is this the end for Beezer? Has the Preds’ Trade Deadline acquisition of forward Dustin Boyd and defenseman Dennis Grebeshkov effectively pushed him out of the mix? Will he even see the ice for the rest of the season?

Personally I believe those questions will be answered by how other teams attack Nashville, physically, and conversely, how the Predators are able to deal with it.

Jordin Tootoo is perhaps pound-for-pound the best fighter in the NHL, but he’s not an enforcer, nor should he be. Unfortunately in previous seasons, he was forced into a somewhat de facto enforcer role by the inconsistent play of Hordichuk. As a result, Toots spent a lot more time in the penalty box than he should have, and the development of his overall game suffered.

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, over the past two seasons Tootoo has grown tremendously as a hockey player and agitator, but has basically shed the role of enforcer. The detail in his game, both offensively and defensively has allowed Trotz to trust him in nearly all situations, making him a much more valuable part of the Predators’ success.

However, I believe the team still needs the heavyweight enforcer role that Belak filled so well last season. And if he is indeed given the chance, they need Belak to be Belak once again, as it’s only a matter of time before opposing teams realize that as Tootoo has backed off as a fighter, and Belak is basically gone missing, the Preds’ forwards are once again without any true protection.

It will be interesting to see this sub-plot of Predators history play out over the next five weeks, as the 2009-10 season draws to a close. How much will Belak be a part of the Preds’ foray into the post-season?

Will we see him next year — and where? Bridgestone Arena — or Zanies’ Comedy Club?

*   *   *   *   *

Next: Protesting No More!

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2 Responses to “Callin’ It As I See It: A Mini-Series – Part V: Bela(c)k-ing”

  1. bigkevonhockey March 10, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    Interesting perspectives offered… but I still say he’s a useless boob, as it relates to hockey.

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