BELPEDIO'S DEVELOPMENT PUTS HIM ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE NHLFeb 3, 2020
By Tom Witosky
A hockey player’s value is usually measured by what he does on the ice, but sometimes it’s revealed more when he’s not on the ice.
Iowa Wild Head Coach Tim Army paid Louie Belpedio a high compliment after Friday night’s 4-1 win over Grand Rapids by talking about the minutes the defenseman missed during the game.
“The only time we got into trouble was when Louie went into the box and they scored on the four-on-four,” Army said, adding the team also had trouble after Belpedio had to fight the Griffins’ Dominik Shine after Belpedio decked Griffins forward Matt Ford with a perfectly acceptable and solid shoulder check. “When you don't have Louie for seven minutes or so of playing time, maybe a little bit more because he can't come out of the box until a whistle, it put a lot of stress on our other five guys.”
For Belpedio, the 2019-20 season in Iowa has been instructive and instrumental in his growing development into an all-around defenseman, not just the skilled offensive player that Minnesota drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
As a result, Belpedio has put himself on the threshold of getting a strong shot to play in the NHL, according to Army.
“He’s really tracking in a good direction and he's getting close,” he said. “He's a guy who can contribute offensively. He can move the puck, he's mobile, but he's becoming a much better defender. And that's how his game is beginning to round out.”
Belpedio came close to making the team in September when he was the final player cut by Minnesota at training camp – a move that left him with mixed emotions.
“The other guy who made the team was Carson Soucy and he's one of my good friends and he's a great player,” the 23-year-old Skokie, IL native said. “So, as sad as I was, I was also really happy for him because he's chasing his dream too."
Belpedio acknowledged not making the Minnesota Wild was a disappointment.
“Coming up short was kind of tough,” he said. “But, at the same time, I knew that I did everything I possibly could. I felt there wasn't anything in my game that I would have changed.”
Since returning to Iowa, Belpedio has been able to hone his game defensively to become relied upon often in the toughest situations on the ice. Against Grand Rapids Friday night, he managed a series of blocked shots and poke checks at several critical moments, particularly in the third period when the Wild held a slim 2-1 lead.
His individual statistics (3 goals, 13 assists) may not be terribly impressive, but he also has scored at important moments, including a recent game-winning goal against San Jose in overtime.
What is impressive is his plus-3 rating despite playing in all but one game this season and skating on the Wild’s penalty kill, serving as the point man on the club’s second power-play unit, and playing his regular shifts.
He also leads the team in penalty minutes with 89. The club record is 137 minutes, held by Wild forward Mike Liambas and former Iowa forward Kurtis Gabriel.
But Belpedio insisted a statistic like that might lead someone to the wrong conclusion.
“That’s just two fights,” he said with a bit of a chuckle. “I fought twice and somehow it totaled like 44 minutes, like 17 in one game and 27 the next game. I wouldn't call myself a fighter, but I will stand up for my teammates.’
Belpedio’s jump in penalty minutes – like forward Gerry Mayhew’s increase in penalty minutes – can also be seen as increased confidence and aggressiveness on the ice – a stepping-stone toward the NHL.
“Everybody when they're drafted and first turn pro has to figure out what they’re going to be as a pro,” Army said. “No matter whether it is a center, a winger, a defenseman, you have to figure out how are you going to play in the National Hockey League.”
Army said Belpedio arrived in Iowa with a full set of offensive skills but has worked hard to become a reliable defender much like Erik Johnson, a top defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche. Army was on the Avalanche’s coaching staff for six years as Johnson developed.
“EJ took some time to figure out what kind of defenseman he was going to be. Now he’s become a minutes-muncher who plays in a lot of different situations,” Army said.
That is what Army is seeing with Belpedio.
“He's physical, he is a very good shot blocker and he's developed into really good penalty killer,” Army said. “He's making better decisions with the puck coming out of our own end. And he sticks up for his teammates.”
Belpedio said the additional responsibility he gets is “something I love.”
“It's helping me transform into a two-way guy and be just as reliable defensively as I am offensively,” he said. “That's what it takes to be a good defenseman in the NHL. You got to defend first so I think I've come a long way in that sense.”
As one of the mainstays on the Iowa blueline, Belpedio expects the pressure on the team to go deep into the playoffs will be something to embrace. He also believes each defenseman is ready to step up when needed.
“It’s the next man up mentality,” Belpedio said. “They’ve all stepped at one time or another so it really doesn't matter who's in or who's hurt. We just need everyone to step up.”
Now in his third year of professional hockey, Belpedio is playing on a one-year contract. But, he said, what happens in the future will be determined in the summer, not now.
“I don't think about that stuff,” he said. “I'm kind of an in the moment guy. I want to win and do whatever I can to help the team.”
At the same time, Belpedio knows he is getting closer to his dream of playing in NHL full-time, but an important task is at hand in Iowa.
“I just try to bring my best effort to the rink every day and help the team in any way I can,” he said. “Because I know everyone else in that room would do the same for me.”