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Output on an ideal line turns heads

  • Article by: Michael Russo
  • Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2007 - 8:15 PM

Attention, fantasy hockey owners: Jacques Lemaire has a red-hot tip for you.

Pick up Eric Belanger, and fast.

"When we got him, I felt that he's going to get 20 goals," the Wild coach said. "Now, I feel he's going to get 80 points. Playing on the power play like he does, playing on a pretty good line, he'll get some points.

"We won't win 1-0 every night."

In the previous six years of the organization, no Wild player has eclipsed the 79 points Brian Rolston racked up two seasons ago. But like Rolston, who exploded offensively after coming to the Wild, Belanger, 29, has never been handed the responsibility on previous teams that he is being given in Minnesota.

As much as Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra are considered to be mainstays on the Wild's "first line," the Rolston-Belanger-Pierre-Marc Bouchard line has provided the Wild's entire offense in the team's first two victories.

The threesome has set up all four goals and has combined for 10 points.

Belanger centers the second power-play unit, which on many nights could be the first unit. And he plays alongside Rolston on the penalty kill, where Rolston is one of the best shorthanded players offensively in the NHL (22 shorthanded goals and five shorthanded assists in the past five seasons).

So when you consider Belanger's speed, size, playmaking ability and linemates, chances are good that he flies by his career highs of 17 goals and 37 points.

"Here, I'm on the power play, I play a lot of minutes with quality players, so this is definitely looking to be a breakout season for me," Belanger said. "That's what I want to show everybody and myself. I believe in myself, and I believe I can be a key player in this league and on this team. I think I'm starting to open some eyes."

Eleven years ago, Belanger, just drafted in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Kings, opened the eyes of Bill Davidge, the former Miami (Ohio) coach who was scouting for the Florida Panthers.

Davidge, whose specialty was skating instruction, helped run a development camp for the Kings and Panthers in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

"Belanger wasn't very big, but he was always intense, always asking questions, always inquisitive, always go, go, go," said Davidge, now in his sixth season as the Columbus Blue Jackets' radio analyst. "You knew if he was going to make it, it was going to be because of hard work. Belanger was a kid who worked."

Skating has always come easy to Belanger, but "I always had something that he couldn't do," Davidge said. "He was always the kid smiling at you when he'd fall. I put him in a lot of different paces and positions, and that's where he had fun with it because he was such a good skater."

Like Lemaire, Davidge believes Belanger is finally in the perfect place to break out.

"To see what he's doing, it doesn't surprise me," Davidge said. "I don't think there's any question, you surround Eric with the right guys ... that's a good complement right there with Rolston on one side and Pierre-Marc on the other. I see a big year.

"Eric's great on draws, he's responsible defensively, he makes a play and he takes a beating."

Or as Lemaire says, "He can do anything you want."

Michael Russo • mrusso@startribune.com

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