DES MOINES, Iowa — There are a lot of rumblings surrounding the enigmatic Minnesota Wild blue line in the early going this season. With so many questions, attention sometimes turn outside the immediate system toward draft picks — the future of the franchise.
Through 16 games to start his senior season, Miami University captain Louis Belpedio is just shy of a point-per-game pace with a total of fifteen (five goals, 10 assists). He sits just four points shy of his collegiate high he set back as a freshman in 2014-15 season, the season following his gold-medal run as captain for Team USA at the U18 World Championships and a summer where Minnesota selected him in the third round (No. 80 overall).
“The best thing about Louie would be his work habits,” said Enrico Blasi, head coach of the RedHawks. “His ability to, I wouldn’t say ‘be in the moment,’ but being able to rise to the occasion on any given day.”
It’s a quality that has been apparent in Belpedio’s approach to hockey at every level, and a tenacity in taking on life’s more arduous tasks. Belpedio ascribes this trait to his father, Lou, a self-made man that battled in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He also points to dedication towards a passion, shown by his mother, Linda, who gave up well-deserved rest in exchange for bleary mornings to the rink.
“(They instilled) knowing that nothing is going to be given to you, that you have to work for everything, and knowing where you come from,” Belpedio said. “I don’t think I’ve ever let any amount of success get to my head. I’ve always been more driven after that. … I don’t know how either of them did it, to be honest, but I guess that’s what hockey parents are all about.”
Belpedio grew up in Skokie, just a quick trip up the Edens Expressway from Chicago; a town with a rich hockey tradition. And with such a tradition comes some decent AAA hockey like Chicago Mission or Team Illinois; the former with names attached to it like Christian Dvorak (Arizona Coyotes), Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins), Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks), and Jake Linhart (Wisconsin Badgers), all from the same birth year as Belpedio — 1996.
As talented as he was at the time, however, the defenseman opted to play for the latter AAA squad. In his estimation, it was a way to play against elite competition, a way to take the unbeaten path and show that he had what it takes to play against a “super team.”
Illinois isn’t known so much for its prep hockey, and the high school game, admittedly, pales in comparison to the state tournament held up in Minnesota. So Belpedio left Skokie, opting to move to Indiana to attend the Culver Military Academy. But it wasn’t because he wanted to boost his résumé, it had more to do with building his character.
“You’re away from home, at a military academy, I needed to grow up,” he recollected. “It was another way for me to make a name for myself rather than follow in the footsteps of someone else.”
And he had a point. It’s no Shattuck in terms of an illustrious list of hockey alumni, but there is at least one name that graduated from Culver that you should be familiar with — Minnesota’s own Ryan Suter, a legacy student.
All the while, “Louie” was under the watchful eye of Ann Arbor and the U.S. National Team Development Program. After two years at Culver, Belpedio was once again on the move, this time up north a state to compete for the USNTDP in the United States Hockey League against the best junior players in the states. More importantly, it was his chance to battle against the best American players.
“It was tough,” Belpedio recalled in making the jump to the national team. “You get a bunch of guys that were the top players on their teams and you gotta go compete against the other top 24 guys in the country. … Every single day in practice was a fight. You’re obviously all really close, and it was tough. But I loved it.”
Two years, an international captaincy on a gold-medal junior team, and an NHL draft selection later, Belpedio was able to step on campus at Miami with a lengthy résumé. You’d also think he’d have an air of entitlement, but Belpedio’s humble approach to hockey allowed him to better his game physically and mentally, having the foresight to know that not all draft picks are owed NHL minutes.
“Obviously I was excited about (getting drafted),” he explained. “Right when I got back from Philly, I was in the gym, skating and getting back to my regular schedule. I think a lot of guys look at (getting drafted) as ‘Wow, I made it,’ rather than ‘Wow, I’m a lot closer than I thought.’ I kind of took the second approach to that. … What can I do to get myself (to Minnesota)?”
It was a new program, a new group of guys, and a lot to get used to. At 18 years old, Belpedio was ready to do what many are unwilling to do as a professional: play on his off-hand side. As a true freshman, he was paired with junior righty Matt Caito, who played 13 games on the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit) team that won the Calder Cup last season and who signed a contract to play in Minnesota’s minor system this summer.
“We had a lot of righties,” Blasi recalled, “and he’s somebody that (was) skilled enough to play his off-side.”
Belpedio, once again, relished the challenge.
“It helped me as a young kid,” Belpedio recalled. “It was a challenge, but I liked it a lot. It made me more versatile. Now I play both, I actually like the left side better because of that. … It made me an all-around better defenseman.”
He also developed another trait early on that has become a trend this season — scoring on the power play. In his sophomore season, he lead the RedHawks in power-play points with 11 on a team that was built with mostly upperclassmen. He also was named alternate captain, something not usually reserved for underclassmen in “The Brotherhood.”
This season, Miami has relied heavily on the blue line for power-play production as Belpedio and Grant Hutton are the team’s leading scorers on the man advantage, contributing half of the production (9 of 18 power-play goals through 16 games).
On the offensive side, Belpedio has thrown 61 pucks on net at a rate of 3.81 per game, a career high (he attempted 70 shots as a freshman in 40 games). His junior season saw his best shooting efficiency, 10.5 percent, in a year that was shortened to 24 games due to an undisclosed injury. He’s particularly deadly from near the top of the left circle.
But defensemen should play defense. In a goal-hungry league like the NHL, watching stat lines is sometimes confused with scouting. While some have called Belpedio “Jared Spurgeon, 2.0,” there’s another name that he feels he’s modeled his game after, and why he wears the No. 58 whilst patrolling the blue paint.
“Some of the best defensemen in the NHL don’t put up a ton of numbers,” Belpedio said when asked about the offensive-defenseman. “When you’re looked at as a skill guy though, you kind of have to play the part. … You see a guy that’s on a power play, you expect them to score and get assists. … (In that regard) I try to play exactly like Kris Letang.”
And he has a point.
When you look at the offensive stats, it’s uncanny. Letang has been a large part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play, as over 40 percent of his career points have come on the advantage. If you read some scouting reports, the resemblance of Belpedio to the veteran righty’s style only strengthens: elite skating ability with his only major flaw being getting in his own way with injuries.
“I like to think I skate really well,” Belpedio said. “If I see a spot where I can keep a puck in the zone, I’m going to do that. In the neutral zone, if I see someone trying to make a cross-ice pass and I know I can step up and take it, I take it. … You just have to be smart and pick your spots.”
He’s fast when it comes to challenging opposing forwards. While some would consider pinching a necessary part of the game in order to generate offensive success, Blasi sees it as an unwanted necessity brought on by bad positioning. Instead, he praises Belpedio’s ability in closing gaps and staying a step ahead of the opposition as opposed to having to frantically go after loose pucks.
“We talk about ‘forward camping,’” Blasi explained. “Being able to be in somebody’s space, to take the puck away, to battle — those are things that Louie’s good at because he’s a good skater. … He’s very hard to play against when he’s moving his feet.”
So why is he still in college? This summer, even Blasi was unsure if his captain would be returning. When asked, he once again showed what has made him such a great captain without being a “rah-rah” presence, but rather one that leads by example.
“It took me awhile to figure it out. … I think I’m ready to be a pro. I’ve been ready to be a pro for awhile,” Belpedio said of his decision. “Neither of my parents graduated from college. I promised them that it would be something that I’d finish. … I keep telling myself, ‘you just keep doing what you’re doing and the opportunity will be there next year,’ so I’ve just been focused on my senior year.”
This is a player that has the future on his mind, but his attention in the present, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better mentality in a player with a skill-set such as his. A player that sees the value in continual growth and battles against stagnation. When asked if he talked to any of his World Juniors teammates about the NHL, he maintained that attitude.
“I try not to talk too much about the next step,” he said. “I think that takes my mind away from what I’m doing right now. … I kind of try to take it day-by-day.”
Belpedio and the RedHawks (7-7-2) will be in action Friday at No. 11 Western Michigan (9-7-1) in a NCHC bout.
(Top image: After being drafted in 2014, Louis Belpedio posed in the Minnesota Wild jersey he someday hopes to wear on the ice. Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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