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Eric Belanger, Political Pawn?

Many Canadiens fans seem to be perplexed, and some outraged, with the fact the Habs signed Jeff Halpern last week for $600,000 and this week Eric Belanger signed in Phoenix for $750,000. Despite the fact that Belanger apparently had a deal that fell through with Washington, and therefore wasn’t really shopping himself until this week, Habs fans are furious that GM Pierre Gauthier would sign Halpern at such a salary when Belanger was technically available for the meagre sum of $150,000 more. Further complicating the issue in public forums, a politician in Quebec this week suggested, and I am paraphrasing here, that Anglophones were taking over the club, phasing out the Francophone players. Apparently, the Habs are a “tool of Canadian federalism.” The reasoning? Federalists and English Canadians see the Habs as a symbol of Francophone Quebec - apparently, if English Canada can make the Habs English enough, the separatist cause will fail for good.

Yeah, because that makes sense.

Many Canadiens fans seem to be perplexed, and some outraged, with the fact the Habs signed Jeff Halpern last week for $600,000 and this week Eric Belanger signed in Phoenix for $750,000. Despite the fact that Belanger apparently had a deal that fell through with Washington, and therefore wasn’t really shopping himself until this week, Habs fans are furious that GM Pierre Gauthier would sign Halpern at such a salary when Belanger was technically available for the meagre sum of $150,000 more. Further complicating the issue in public forums, a politician in Quebec this week suggested, and I am paraphrasing here, that Anglophones were taking over the club, phasing out the Francophone players. Apparently, the Habs are a “tool of Canadian federalism.” The reasoning? Federalists and English Canadians see the Habs as a symbol of Francophone Quebec - apparently, if English Canada can make the Habs English enough, the separatist cause will fail for good.

Yeah, because that makes sense.

(Believe it or not, the leader of the Parti Quebecois, Pauline Marois, is calling for a “correction” of the number of Francophones on the team. After their best season in seventeen years. More on that here: The Montreal Canadiens become a political pawn…again)

While the Belanger signing does raise questions regarding the Canadiens decision to sign Halpern, it’s hardly a reason for the pitchforks to be out. Yes, Belanger is a good centre - but how good is he, and how much better is he really when compared to Jeff Halpern? Let’s try to answer that question.

Who is Jeff Halpern?

Halpern, a ten year NHL veteran, has been a dependable player on both the NHL and international stage. A participant in many tournaments as a member of team USA, Halpern knows new teammates such as Hal Gill, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta well. While his reputation has long been as a penalty kill specialist, Halpern has also chipped in offensively, in some cases on a very impressive level. Halpern has topped 30 points on 5 occasions, and hit the 20 goal mark in 2000-2001. This past season in Tampa Bay, despite ice time with Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay, Halpern scored only 9 goals and 8 assists for 19 points. He was dealt late in the year to the Los Angeles Kings, where he recorded 2 assists. 

However, as alluded to above Halpern is known league-wide as a defensive specialist. His 52.8 faceoff percentage last season suggests he will be a competent replacement for Dominic Moore, and he certainly complements the Canadiens other three centres, Gomez, Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller, well. Two seasons removed from scoring 20 goals, Halpern has the offensive skills to step into a third line role should Eller suffer setbacks in his first full NHL campaign. More than anything, Halpern is known as a team player, willing to sacrifice his body when called upon. Perhaps his most significant impact will be as a positive and experienced influence on younger players such as Ben Maxwell and Max Pacioretty. Like fellow fourth liner Mathieu Darche, Halpern’s attitude will serve his teammates well.

Of note, Halpern suffered a significant knee injury in 2008 at the World Championships, which is a concern for many Canadiens fans who have suffered through the knee problems of Saku Koivu and Andrei Markov over the past decade.

What about Belanger?

Just like Halpern, Belanger hit the ground running in 2000-2001 with the Los Angeles Kings. A native of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Belanger is also known as a defensive specialist league wide, and one who can chip in offensively when called upon. He has posted six 30 point seasons over nine years in the league, the highlight being last season when he scored 15 goals and 26 assists. Belanger has Halpern topped in recent years, as he more than doubled his points total last season. But what about defensively?

This is where Belanger has a distinct advantage. While his 56.4% faceoff success rate may not seem much better than Halpern’s, this statistic ranked Belanger amongst the league’s most reliable faceoff men and top ten in the NHL. Belanger While he is smaller than Halpern, and some will argue he is more fragile, he’s also a gamer and earned great respect league-wide when he lost eight teeth to an errant stick in the playoffs against Montreal last season but stayed in the game.

While Belanger may not have the reputation Halpern does as a defensive specialist, and he doesn’t drop the gloves as often (Halpern has nine career fights, Belanger 0), he’s a gritty, two-way forward who has proven he is capable of scoring goals.

Quelling the Quebecois Question

Which brings us to the important question: is Belanger much better than Halpern? I don’t want to make Pierre Gauthier’s life more difficult, but the statistics say yes. Belanger has 41 goals and 114 points since 2008 – Halpern has 26 goals and 77 points. Factor in the faceoff statistics, and we are looking at a fairly significant disparity in performance. While Halpern is a respected veteran, and should have a positive impact on the club, Belanger brings more to the table at this stage of the career. Perhaps Halpern’s knee injury is to blame, but he has not performed to the same level the past two or three seasons.

The one caveat here is dressing room presence. Halpern seems to have a reputation for being a positive influence in the dressing room and accepting his role as determined by the coaches. I haven’t seen a lot written on this aspect of Belanger’s game, but he has commented on his desire to be a top-line player. That option doesn’t exist in Montreal, but it likely does in Phoenix. Would he have been a problem in the Montreal dressing room? Perhaps. But if the question is ability, there is no doubt in my mind that Belanger, going into 2011, is the better player. He is definitely worth the extra $150,000.

Who knows if Belanger would have had any interest in playing under the microscope in Montreal. Who knows if he would have worked out. One thing is for certain, however: the Parti Quebecois thinks he should be playing in Montreal. I do too. The difference? I don’t think it’s a conspiracy.

 

Filed in: NHL Teams, Montreal Canadiens, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: belanger, halpern, parti+quebecois

Comments

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I wouldn’t expect anything less from Marois. Maybe she should try and manage the Nordiques, if and when Quebec City gets a team.

Agree that the Habs would be better off with Belanger. But Halpern is solid, and should perform just fine.

Posted by Briney on 09/16/10 at 12:32 PM ET

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The yearly “English-North Americans are conspiring against us because we speak French, ” apparently to galvinize this movement they have going. It’s just so tired.

Posted by NathanBC on 09/16/10 at 01:27 PM ET

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I believe that the Montreal Canadiens should be completely established by quota. Take the latest census data and divide the team into each ethnic category.  For prominent positions such as goaltender, first line center and highest scorer it should be mandatory that they be Francophones born no more than 50 miles from the Bell Centre. Of course that means they will need at least one Asian defensemen, two west Indians centers and 1 central american back-up goaltender, and three native american enforcers but this is the only way to truly represent Quebec. Of course a third of the team should also be former Nordique fans and that would absolutely refuse to wear the Canadiens sweater.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/17/10 at 01:00 PM ET

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Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 09/17/10 at 11:00 AM ET

That may be the best response to a column I’ve had yet. Thanks! I got quite a chuckle out of it.

Posted by The Upper Canadien from Toronto on 09/17/10 at 05:23 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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