As a first round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft traded to the Dallas Stars for a former first round goaltender in June 2004, much was expected of Shawn Belle coming out of major juniors, but the 2005-06 season has not been as smooth of a transition as was hoped.
Traded for Jason Bacashihua, Belle was a member of Canada’s 2003 U18 World Championship Team and Canada’s 2004 and 2005 World Junior Championship teams, winning a gold in Yaroslav, a silver medal in Helsinki, and a gold in Grand Forks. The Edmonton, Alberta, native also won gold with Team Canada at the 2002 U18 Eight Nations Cup, where he was named the Top Defenseman of the tournament. The powerful skater also won the Bobby Orr Fastest Skater Award at the 2003 CHL Top Prospects Skills Competition. With such personal awards and successful international experience, Belle was expected to have an easy transition from the Tri-City Americans of the WHL to the Iowa Stars of the AHL.
However, Belle struggled early in the season, with his -4 rating in a 6-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins on Oct. 28 as a lowlight. Belle was crashing the net harder than most I-Stars forwards, but had no points to show for it through Nov. 29, when he was injured in an awkward fall while battling along the boards against the Griffins. The rookie defenseman missed all of December with a leg injury, and was a scratch Jan. 14 against the Cleveland Barons. Since then, Belle has been making some noise.
The 21-year-old defenseman was a plus player for five straight games from Jan. 21 against Manchester, when Belle earned his first assist of the season, to Feb. 3. Belle earned his second assist of the season Feb. 11 against Milwaukee and his first professional goal Feb. 26 against San Antonio. Often failing to connect on his passes and coughing the puck up the first half of the season, Belle’s hands have become a bit softer in the second half and have helped him move the puck more efficiently and utilize his considerable shot when receiving passes.
More importantly, his defensive play has seen improvement since the beginning of the season. The 6’1, 220-pound blueliner has played a more physical game in recent weeks, punishing opponents along the boards and angling opponents better and standing them up just inside the blue line instead of getting beat wide. While Belle could still improve his backwards acceleration, he has seen an increase in ice time while pairing with veteran Dan Jancevski on the team’s first pairing.
Possessing many of the requisite tools to become an NHL defenseman, Belle still has to bring them all together on a consistent basis. After the Stars 3-1 victory over the Manitoba Moose Mar. 5, Iowa Stars head coach Dave Allison said, “Shawn Belle is going to be as good as he wants to be.
“It’s about finding himself and just seeing if the so-called sacrifice is worth it,” Allison continued. “There’s a lot there, but we’re just trying to get him to understand that it’s alright to be great.”
Hockey’s Future caught up with Belle after that same game and discussed his recent improvement and increase in confidence, the frustrations of the first half of the season, his path to pro hockey, his success with Team Canada, and even his country’s recent disappointment at the Olympics.
HF: It seems like your play has been improving of late, you’re getting a lot more ice time, what would you say are some of the keys to your recent improvement?
SB: I think I just got back to my game. I wasn’t playing my game, I was hurt there for a while there, and finally I just started to get my feet underneath me and started to adjust.
HF: How much confidence has that additional ice time given you?
SB: It’s definitely good for me. To have the coaching staff behind you and the player behind and know that you can do the job out there, it definitely helps your confidence.
HF: How has playing with Dan Jancevski helped you?
SB: He’s a terrific defenseman. He’s been playing a lot, he’s a great guy to learn from. He’s definitely helped me out.
HF: I’ve noticed you’ve charged the net a lot this season and you got that goal against San Antonio, did that relieve any pressure on you.
SB: (Laughing quietly and smiling) It definitely did. It was a long time before I scored. In juniors I used to put up a lot of points, so to get that first goal, it definitely gets the monkey off your back. My play has jumped up and my game is to jump up into the play, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.
HF: Describe how that goal happened.
SB: It was just like a cycle, I jumped down into the play and Junior Lessard passed me the puck and I had an open lane to the net and I just managed to put it by the goalie.
HF: What have been some of the most difficult adjustments you’ve faced in transitioning from the WHL to the AHL?
SB: I think just the speed of the game and the strength of the guys up here. It’s definitely a different game. You can’t take any nights off, any shifts off, because you’re going to get beat, the players are too good up here.
HF: How frustrating was it to miss December to injury, but did that also allow you an opportunity to learn?
SB: Yeah, any time you get injured for a long stretch of time, it’s definitely very frustrating to watch the team. They’re out there every night and you want to be out there, so it was pretty frustrating. But, watching the game, it definitely helps your perspective of the game.
HF: What exactly did you injure, when I watched happen against Grand Rapids…
SB: [Interrupts] Lower body.
HF: Lower body?
SB: (Laughing) Lower body.
HF: I see. What do you feel your role is on the Iowa Stars and how is it different from Tri City?
SB: I think it’s pretty much the same, to get the job done. You’ve got be solid defensively and if you can, jump into the play and add the offensive aspect to my game, I can do it. It’s not 100 percent different, no turnaround, they want to focus on defense a little bit more around here though.
HF: What do you feel your strengths are as a player?
SB: I think I have the size to be a physical player, and I’ve definitely been starting to do that here, lately, and I think my speed is definitely my biggest assets.
HF: You’re a very powerful player, are there any special things you’ve done training or on the ice to help that?
SB: Just every year either power skating or just a normal workout regiment in the summertime. Lots of guys are starting to do those kinds of things now.
HF: What are the things that you’re working on so that one day you can play in Dallas?
SB: Just my defensive aspect of the game. You’ve got to be able to stop other teams from scoring, other top lines from scoring, and not be on the ice for minuses. You’ve got to be physical along the boards and your offense will come. If you clean up your own zone, you’ll find your way.
HF: How has skating in Dallas mini-camps and training camps helped you?
SB: It’s the same, it’s a learning curve. You’ve got all the guys that are here, they’re skating in the minicamps and you get to meet some of the guys. It definitely helps you, you get a little bit more comfortable around guys.
HF: How much better is the hockey in the exhibition season of the NHL than here, or is it about the same?
SB: It’s a tough question. In the exhibition season there are guys who want to make the team and there are some of the older guys, it’s their tenth time doing it. So, there’s two different perspectives on the ice. You’ve got the young guys, it’s pretty physical out there, and guys who want it. You get down here, there’s so many guys who want to make it to the NHL, they’re going to be going extra hard every single time they’re on the ice.
HF: You’ve represented Canada on two occasions at the World Junior Championships, you won a gold and a silver, how much did that mean to you to play for your country and to find such success?
SB: It’s unbelievable any time you get to play for your country. Words can’t describe how amazing it was to be able to win that gold medal. The guys on the team were great guys, and I wouldn’t want to win it with anyone else.
HF: Although it’s not related to you, tell me about the disappointment with Canada not medaling at the Olympics.
SB: It’s disappointing, but there’s a lot of good teams. As far as I watched, Canada was skating hard, they just couldn’t find a way to score. If you have a hot goaltender heading into the tournament, you’re definitely going to do well, but you also have to be able to score. Canada had great defense and they had awesome firepower, but they just weren’t able to score.
HF: You played four full seasons of major juniors, how did that experience help prepare you for pro hockey?
SB: It’s another stepping stone. You go from minor hockey to the WHL, or to somewhere in the CHL. It’s just another stepping stone in your career to the NHL.
HF: When did you start playing?
SB: I started playing organized hockey when I was seven.
HF: What organization did you skate with?
SB: Millwoods Bruins.
HF: Who were some of your favorite NHL players growing up?
SB: Paul Coffey is one of them, the way he skated, he was one of the best defensemen in the world, Ray Bourque, guys like that.
HF: Are those the guys you try to emulate?
SB: When I was younger I wanted to be like those players, but now I’m not going to be any of those players. I’m not Ray Bourque, I’m not Paul Coffey, I just want to be Shawn Belle.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.