OXFORD, Ohio - After two years of rebuilding, the Miami RedHawks are back in the mix among early NCAA Tournament hopefuls, checking in at No. 18 in the Pairwise rankings at the season’s halfway point.
There are a lot of reasons the RedHawks have already nearly surpassed the win totals from the past season, as they sit at .500 ahead of their January 5-6 tilt against the No. 2/2 Denver Pioneers: A solid defense, which has held up in close games, scoring production spread out across all four lines, and a power play that’s converting on over 25 percent of its opportunities.
Belpedio, a senior captain, and Hutton, a junior assistant captain, have been pivotal on both ends of the ice for the RedHawks. The duo has faced off against the top lines in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and has come away with a combined +7 plus/minus thus far. Even more impressive, these defensemen have combined to score over 25 percent of Miami's goals so far this season.
“When you have a young team like that it’s always nice to have a couple of veteran guys like that to calm things down,” Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said. “With the way the game is played now, I think it’s important that your D are involved (in the offense).”
The biggest measurable contributions that Belpedio and Hutton have made are their power play; the duo has combined to score nearly half of the power play goals. Overall, Hutton leads the team and all NCAA defensemen with six man-advantage tallies, while Belpedio has 10 power play points so far.
While both defensemen have undoubtedly held a big role in the offense this year, neither are entirely comfortable looking at themselves as solely an offensive-minded defenseman.
“I do like that offensive role, I think that’s another card to have in your deck,” Belpedio said. “But I consider myself a two-way defenseman, and the scoring is just kind of a bonus. Nobody really cares who scores the goal, just so long as we score it.”
Unselfishly enough, Hutton agrees; he’s less concerned with who touches the puck last so long as it crosses the goal line.
“It doesn’t matter who’s going to get the points, you just move the puck and go with the best opportunities,” Hutton said. “Our forwards have done really well down low and on zone entry that they suck the forwards down low, which opens up great shot lanes for us (defensemen).”
Even with their indifference with getting on the scoresheet, Hutton and Belpedio have been crucial catalysts for the offense, stepping up on the rush and floating down in the offensive zone to lend a hand to the forwards at just the right moment. The offensive tendencies aren’t just executed on a whim, however. These plays are the result of a trust built up between the two players and the coaching staff over the course of several college hockey seasons.
“I would say we have the green light. That’s been earned,” Belpedio said. “With that comes a lot of trust from the coaches, knowing that you know when to pick your spots, but that’s something we’ve gained, and a lot of the times it pays off.”
They’re not on the same defensive pairing, and they no longer play on the same power play unit, but when the RedHawks need a goal in a critical moment, Belpedio and Hutton are out there.
“It’s all situational, so it depends on what’s going on in the game and who we’re playing, (but) when you need a momentum shift or anything like that, they’re back there, so it’s a big part of our team,” Blasi said.
Being two of only nine upperclassmen on the team and two of the three captains on the squad, the defensemen have been able to develop a strong bond over the years. They even spent last year as roommates.
“He’s probably one of my best friends on the team, and I think that helps our relationship on the team,” Hutton said.
The two enjoy hanging out, whether it’s at the rink, the house, or even, Walmart?
“Just totally random stuff,” Hutton said, of the time they spend together. “Me and him just like to go to Walmart sometimes and hangout, but whether it’s playing video games, hanging out… we’ll go to the rink late night and hot tub, cold tub and shoot some pucks to get away and get our minds off school and talk about life.”
As close as the teammates are, they came to Miami from very different areas of the junior hockey world. Belpedio was a blue-chip prospect, a 2014 third round selection of the Minnesota Wild, who captained a number of current NHLers on the 2014 U.S. U-18 National Team to a U-18 World Championship gold medal. Hutton, an Indiana native, played mostly in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) before finding his way to Miami, with brief stints in the United States Hockey League (USHL).
Belpedio, contemplating signing with the Wild this past off-season, wasn’t even sure if he was going to return for his senior season. But he came back to Oxford to get his degree, because with it he would become the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college.
Yet Belpedio said he initially chose the program because of the emphasis they placed on relationships and brotherhood. So it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that close relationships -- like the one he has with his fellow defenseman -- were also strong pull factors for him returning for his senior season.
That, and for another shot in the NCAA Tournament, which the RedHawks haven’t been in since the 2015 season, when he was a freshman. Even though it was so long ago, Belpedio said that they still talk about the game a lot amongst the seniors.
And thanks to the solid two-way play by Belpedio and Hutton, those seniors -- and the rest of the program -- may just have a lot more to reminisce about after this season.
Senior captain Louie Belpedio is a third round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild.
Junior Grant Hutton leads all NCAA defenseman with eight goals this season.