ST. PAUL -- A quick look at the Wild's defensive depth chart at the end of the offseason might have given some in Louie Belpedio's position some serious heartburn.
Minnesota's top four of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin are locked and loaded. Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn are locked into multi-year contracts. The team signed Brad Hunt to a two-year contract.
Throw in Carson Soucy, who, like Belpedio, has three games of NHL experience, but also has four games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs ... and it certainly wasn't going to be an easy road to a roster spot on Opening Night.
And while that still isn't assured, less than a week before the season-opening game in Nashville, Belpedio is still in Minnesota and still making a final push to make the NHL roster out of training camp.
"That was my goal coming in, I wasn't coming here to play in the minors. I wanted to set the bar high and give myself an opportunity to make this team. I think I've done that so far," Belpedio said. "The work's not done yet, I still have a ways to go, but as of now, I'm happy with the effort I've put in and the position I've put myself in. I just need to keep going."
While unfortunate circumstances cracked the door for Belpedio to make the NHL roster, to his credit, he's done his part to not only open the door, but kick it down.
Pateryn has been battling a lower-body injury for the bulk of training camp while Hunt was dealing with back spasms in Colorado earlier this week.
That's allowed Belpedio and Soucy opportunities to get lots of reps in practice and plenty of chances to get ice time in preseason games.
"[Belpedio's] certainly got a lot better, and I don't mean that in a negative way but we've talked about how much more mature he looks out there making plays," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "I was just talking to him on the ice and I said the biggest thing sometimes in this league is you gotta do everything right on point."
A third-round pick of the Wild in the 2014 NHL Draft, Belpedio went from the U.S. National Team to Miami University, where he played four seasons for the Red Hawks.
A three-year captain in college, Belpedio had a stellar career at Miami but for one reason or another, seemed to fall off the prospect radar as he turned pro.
He played in 10 games with Iowa after his senior season in Miami, tallying a pair of assists, but coaches with the Wild's minor-league team were concerned about some of the defensive inconsistencies they saw.
A one-game cup of coffee at the end of that season in Minnesota yielded his first NHL point -- and first multi-point game in the NHL -- in San Jose.
Last season, he played in 70 games with Iowa during the regular season and 11 more in the playoffs, becoming one of its most valuable defensemen.
"I took a lot of steps last year, playing a lot of minutes, playing in all situations," Belpedio said. "I think that helped round out my game and get used to the pro lifestyle and the pro game itself."
While the jump from the AHL to the NHL is a significant one, the leap from college to the pros can be even larger. The game slowed down for Belpedio last season, specifically during the postseason, as he helped Iowa to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The biggest adjustment, however, wasn't necessarily the speed of the pro game, rather, it was learning how to play a safer game.
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"In college, I got away with a lot," Belpedio said. "I think you've gotta be more aware at all times in the pro game and that's helped make me a better player. Just from last year to now, I think I've grown a lot in that aspect, in all three zones. There's definitely some differences and I've had to work some kinks out, and I think I used last year for that, but I think I've come a long way and I'm excited to see where I can keep going."
Still just 23 years old, Belpedio thinks there is still plenty of growth in his game.
One area that, perhaps surprisingly, hasn't needed much maturing is his willingness to play a physical brand of hockey. It's not often that a 5-foot-11, 194-pound college alum comes to the pro game willing to engage physically ... no matter what that may mean.
Belpedio wasn't afraid to drop the mitts last season, and even got into it with teammate J.T. Brown earlier in training camp.
A right-handed shot on the ice, Belpedio can swing a mean left jab. And he's a willing combatant, something that comes from offseason boxing lessons that he started when he was in high school as a way to supplement his normal training regiment. He trains in a boxing gym two to three times per week during the summer.
"I've always had kind of a mean streak in me," Belpedio said. "I think a lot of the times, you look around the room and you know they'd do that for you, so you want to be able to do that for them. I think that goes a long ways when you stick up for guys."
That kind of mentality has been one of the themes of training camp under the watchful eyes of Boudreau and new GM Bill Guerin, who has stressed an 'All In,' team-first mantra.
In that regard, perhaps it's no surprise that Belpedio has put himself in position to potentially break camp with the big club. At a minimum, he's put himself firmly in the organization's plans moving forward.
"There was always the real positive vibe about him," Boudreau said. "And when we looked at him on our depth charts this summer, we had him right up there."
"He's done everything we've asked of him, and that's why he's still here six days before the first game."
(Photo by Michael Martin/Colorado Avalanche)