Nashville Predators v Phoenix Coyotes

Oilers should benefit from Eric Belanger’s steadying presence

There were a lot of contracts handed out in early July, but a big chunk of them seemed to go to guys whose best days are (allegedly) in front of them. That’s why it was especially satisfying to see journeyman checking forward Eric Belanger get a three-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers; the two-way center has done everything that teams asked of him during his quietly impressive NHL career, only to see those clubs pass on bringing him back (sometimes in seemingly unprofessional ways) as a free agent or trade him to a different city.

Naturally, there’s always the chance that the Oilers could continue that string of instability by scuttling him out of town at some point, but that three-year, $5.25 million deal gives Belanger the consistency he’s been fighting for. If his previous work is any indication, Belanger should be worth every penny – even if it’s just doing the dirty jobs that the team’s talented young players aren’t quite as proficient at.

Again, it’s been a tough road for Belanger. The Edmonton Journal points out that the Oilers will be his seventh team since the lockout ended, which is especially odd since he spent the first 10 years of his career with the Los Angeles Kings. The constant changes of scenery have been rough on Belanger’s family, but the experienced forward has a healthy outlook on the situation.

“My oldest was nervous and crying on her first day. She’s eight and she didn’t want to go. It’s tough for her, trying to get some new friends,” said Belanger, who signed a three-year, $5.5-million US contract on July 1.

“This is her fourth school in four years. But we’re in a neighbourhood with lots of kids, which is great. It’s hard on my wife (Alexandra), but more so on my kids (Lola Pearl is in Grade 1) because they’re here because of me.

“But I know it’ll be fine.”

(snip)

“It’s the reality of the new NHL. You see lots of guys moving around. It’s not a bad thing. It means lots of teams want you. You’re doing something right. I actually was in one organization for 10 years, in Los Angeles. But since the lockout, I have moved around. Every place I’ve been has been nice,” he said.

Beyond the obvious benefits of a longer contract, the French-Canadian forward has another reason to be excited: the Oilers will be the first Canadian NHL team he’ll suit up for. He said that he grew up watching the Quebec Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens, so it will be a treat to play in a hockey hotbed – especially after a season with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Belanger brings tangible and intangible assets to Edmonton

Belanger said that he was surprised the Coyotes didn’t want him back, and looking at his numbers there, it’s tough to dispute his logic. While his offensive numbers were modest (40 points), he was the top Coyotes forward in overall ice time since Shane Doan missed 10 games. Belanger averaged 17:20 minutes per game, third among forwards behind Doan and hulking center Martin Hanzal. That’s an impressive nightly average for an under-the-radar player, with 1:47 of shorthanded time per game. Belanger was also a go-to guy in the faceoff circle, winning an impressive 55.3 percent of his draws – earning a tie with Travis Zajac for the 17th-best mark in the NHL.

Considering the Coyotes’ questions at center, it’s that much more surprising that they showed little interest in bringing Belanger back. Phoenix’s loss will be Edmonton’s gain, because the Oilers have struggled in the faceoff dot over the last few years.

Belanger brings a nice all-around game, plenty of experience and dominant faceoff skills to a team that needs more of all three elements. If you look at him as a replacement for departed center Andrew Cogliano, he represents an attractive opposite to the disappointing young player. Where Cogliano seemed like pure, unrealized potential, Belanger represents sheer productivity.

That’s not the kind of change that will propel the Oilers to a playoff spot, but if they improve in other areas, it could be a very underrated move.

NHL won’t reconsider Golden Knights name, logo in wake of trademark issue

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 22:  Vegas Golden Knights apparel is displayed after being announced as the name for the Las Vegas NHL franchise at T-Mobile Arena on November 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The team will begin play in the 2017-18 season.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Last night, we passed along news that the Vegas Golden Knights trademark had been denied by the U.S. government, based on a “likelihood of confusion” with the NCAA’s College of St. Rose Golden Knights.

Today, the NHL has responded with a statement from deputy commissioner Bill Daly:

“We are currently reviewing the Trademark Office’s letter and will prepare a detailed response demonstrating why we continue strongly to believe the Vegas Golden Knights mark should be registered in co-existence with the college registration, just as a number of other nicknames currently co-exist in professional and college sports (particularly where there is no overlap as to the sport for which the nickname is being used).

“That response is not due until June 7, 2017.

“We consider this a routine matter and it is not our intention to reconsider the name or logo of this franchise. We fully intend to proceed as originally planned, relying on our common law trademark rights as well as our state trademark registrations while we work through the process of addressing the question raised in the federal applications.”

Shortly after last night’s news broke, Sports Illustrated received this statement from the Las Vegas group:

The timing of a potential resolution will be something to monitor. As mentioned above, the NHL has until June 7 to challenge the trademark denial — and the Vegas expansion draft is set for June 18-20.

Related: There also might be some issues involving the Army

The Lightning are getting healthier and ‘starting to figure things out’

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brian Boyle (11) celebrates his shootout goal against the Washington Capitals during an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
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The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t played since Sunday, so they should be well-rested for tonight’s encounter with the Vancouver Canucks at Amalie Arena.

This is another important game for the Bolts, who’ve won just once in their last six. A Stanley Cup contender in the eyes of many, Tampa Bay (14-11-2) is currently two points out of a playoff spot.

While Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan remain out with injuries, the Lightning are expected to get a couple of key players back when defenseman Jason Garrison and forward Jonathan Drouin return against Vancouver.

The Bolts already feel like they’ve turned the corner, after beating Washington in a shootout Saturday and earning a point Sunday in Carolina.

“When you go through those streaks, it’s kind of like you’re going into games just waiting for something bad to happen,” forward Alex Killorn told the Tampa Bay Times. “I think we’ve kind of gotten over that. You’ve got to be the instigator, got to be the aggressor and take over games.”

There’s definitely the potential for the Lightning to take over tonight’s game. The banged-up Canucks will enter without their two top defenseman, Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and one of their best forwards, Jannik Hansen, among other injuries.

Saturday brings a much tougher test when the Pittsburgh Penguins pay a visit.

But tonight’s focus is the Canucks. The Lightning could really use the two points. They should get them. They just need to play like they can.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get back on track,” Killorn said. “We’re starting to figure things out.”

Scheifele back for Jets, who look to continue points streak

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele celebrates after scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs during first-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)
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Oh, those streaky Jets.

After a horrific mid-November run — which included a five-game losing streak where they were outscored 20-9 — the Jets have turned things around, going 4-1-1 in their last six while securing points in three straight.

Tonight, things get even better, as leading scorer Mark Scheifele returns from a brief time on the shelf as Winnipeg hosts the Rangers at MTS.

Scheifele, 23, hasn’t played since a 6-3 loss to Edmonton on Dec. 1. His absence was a big one — in addition to the offensive production (26 points in 26 games), Scheifele averaged over 20 minutes per night and led the team in faceoffs taken.

He’d also developed terrific chemistry with rookie sniper Patrik Laine.

To their credit, the Jets did really well without Scheifele in the lineup. They beat the Blues 3-2 in OT on Saturday, then followed that up with a 2-1 win in Chicago on Sunday. Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss against Detroit was a setback, but the club still managed to secure at least a point, which pushed them into the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

Tonight, Scheifele projects to center a top line between Drew Stafford and Blake Wheeler. Laine will play on a second line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little.

The Canucks are injured, on the road, and desperate for wins

A shot by New Jersey Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy, not pictured, is seen before entering the net of Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom (25), of Sweden, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Newark, N.J. Also seen are Devils' John Moore (2) and Canucks' Ben Hutton (27). (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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The Vancouver Canucks are in a tough spot.

Again.

After Tuesday’s loss in New Jersey, they sit five points back of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

They also have four games left on a very tough road trip.

Oh, and they’re down three defensemen — Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and Philip Larsen — and three forwards — Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett and Anton Rodin.

But other than that, everything’s going great.

Tonight, the Canucks will take on the Lightning in Tampa Bay. Three more games at Florida, Washington, and Carolina await.

There is good news, though, as Larsen does not seem to be seriously injured after taking that devastating hit from Taylor Hall. The 27-year-old defenseman was medically cleared to return to Vancouver. He’ll be replaced tonight by little-used Alex Biega.

But the Canucks (11-13-2) need to find a way to stay in the playoff race, because it doesn’t get any easier once they got home, with visits from Tampa Bay, Columbus, and Winnipeg (twice). By the Christmas break, they could easily be in an even bigger hole, and that would make things very interesting indeed.

That’s because, earlier this week, GM Jim Benning told The Province newspaper that he will not be approaching any of his players about waiving their no-trade clauses. That includes Alex Burrows, a pending unrestricted free agent who’s been among the Canucks’ best this season. A versatile forward with playoff experience, Burrows could theoretically bring a decent return at the deadline.

“Now that Jim said that, well, for me, I love my teammates, I love my team and I love this organization,” Burrows said, per the Vancouver Sun. “But at the same time, things can change quickly in this business. I’ve learned that before. I learned that last year, last summer. So for me, it’s take it one day at a time.”

Things could certainly change if the team falls short, especially after ownership committed $36 million to Loui Eriksson in free agency. The Canucks are right up against the salary cap. So far, they have refused to tear it down and rebuild, a la Toronto and Buffalo.

Which is to say, if the Canucks are out of the playoff race by the deadline, management (and ownership) may have to reconsider their stances. Because after last season’s deadline disaster, they really can’t afford another.

The best way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in the race and play the “meaningful games in March” that they’re still aiming to play. That starts tonight in Tampa, against a team with some desperation of its own. The Lightning have just one win in their last six, so they won’t be taking their opponents lightly.

And that could be more bad news for the Canucks.