Nov 15, 2018

By Tom Witosky

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Ask Iowa Wild coach Tim Army to name players who have improved their game substantially since the start of the season and he’s likely to provide two names – defensemen Louie Belpedio and Brennan Menell.

“They are both talented guys who have improved their play since we arrived here after training camp,” Army said recently. “They are strong offensive players and we’ve become very comfortable pairing them up together.”

For Belpedio, a highly touted 22-year-old rookie, and Menell, the 21-year-old who unexpectedly earned a spot on the AHL Wild roster last season, the pairing has meant spending even more time together.

“We feel like we have chemistry out there,” Menell said. “We room together and now are paired together on the ice, so it is a good approach for us.”

Belpedio agreed.

“We complement each other well,” Belpedio said. “Because we are roommates, we have gotten to know each other pretty well and learned how to communicate.”

The pairing is also a bit unusual, as both players are right-handed shots. Army said Belpedio, the Wild’s third-round draft choice in 2014, showed he could play on the left side when he was a member of the U-18 U.S. National Development Team and four years as the top defenseman as a Miami Redhawk, making the handedness of the players a moot point.

“He has played that position a lot and that is a difficult thing to do,” Army said.

Army said the biggest problem is that most of the time pucks coming to Belpedio at the blue line have to be played off the backhand, which limits what he can do at the point. 

“But he is such a good skater and has a good stick,” Army said. “His skating lets him get around pucks efficiently and that is what allows him to make plays from there.”

Belpedio said his biggest adjustment to the professional game has been playing fewer minutes each game. In college, he averaged more than 30 minutes on the ice; now that’s down to around 20 minutes or less.

“That 10 minutes means you have a lot more energy to play but it also means you have to play harder,” he said. “You have to maintain tighter gaps and be more aggressive and active. I have had a ways to go in terms of playing urgent for 20 minutes instead of relaxed for 30.”

One of Belpedio’s biggest assets is his strength and arm length, which gives him the ability to poke check pucks away from ongoing rushers.

“Louie is a little more of a one-on-one player,” Army said. “He has that ability to get the puck away from an attacker one-on-one. He has a lot of that in his game.”

With his arrival last season, Belpedio played one game at the NHL level, making his debut on April 7 at San Jose, but found it difficult to break into the defense pairings in Minnesota. He said that has helped him focus on getting better.

“I was hoping to give myself a chance to make the big team, but that didn’t happen right away obviously,” he said. “But I thought I left on a good note with some confidence. So when I got down here I knew I had to fix some pieces to my game and want to make sure if I do get the chance to get back up there hopefully it will be for good.”

Meanwhile, Menell, who showed promise in the Wild’s training camp last season and finished with eight goals and 15 assists in 72 games, was a healthy scratch to start the season before working his way into the lineup. When he did, he managed to tie a franchise record of getting seven assists in seven consecutive games.

Army said Menell simply had to tighten up several aspects of his game coming out of training camp.

“He needed to make better decisions on things like when to join the rush,” Army said. “But once he got his arms around it, he practiced well and got himself into a good spot. He’s been ready to play ever since.”

Menell’s strength, Army said, is his aggressiveness when it makes sense.

“Brennan is more of a puck mover, he is a ‘jump up into the attack’ type of player,” Army said. “He also does a good job of pinching and keeping pucks alive.”

Menell said his return to the starting lineup was more about “looking myself in the mirror” than anything else.

“It was easy for me to get angry at the coaches and everyone else,” he said. “But, sometimes you have to ask yourself what more can you do. When I took that attitude on myself, it really helped me.”

After earning the starting spot, Menell found himself back in the press box last week, but not because of his play. During a 3-0 victory over Rockford, Menell took a puck in the face off a slap shot, then rushed from the ice leaving a trail of blood.

“I had a lot of adrenaline going so it didn’t hurt too much at the start,” Menell recounted. “But there was a lot of blood so that was scary. It turns out I got lucky and it could have been a whole lot worse.”

Menell missed only one game and now wears a full visor to protect his face.

“My nose is a lot better,” he said. “I’ll have to wear the full visor for a few more weeks. It is healing up nicely both outside and inside.”

Army said he intends to keep Belpedio and Menell together if possible.

“I like the way they’ve both progressed and think they are learning what is expected of them,” Army said. “Both have a ways to go, but they are getting there and we are getting some good play as a result.”

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