Two months ago, Luca Del Bel Belluz couldn’t find his appetite.
The NHL draft is split up over two days, with the first round taking place the opening night and rounds two through seven the next day. Del Bel Belluz entered the annual selection process this July projected to be a late first-round pick or early second-round selection, which meant he’d be chosen on Thursday night … or have to wait a whole ‘nother day to hear his name called.
“I just didn’t have an appetite,” he said at the time. “A lot of nerves. It took a while for me to go to bed.”
But if it were up to the Blue Jackets, Del Bel Belluz would have been a first-round pick. That’s where Columbus ranked the center for Mississauga of the OHL, whose scoring abilities and defensive intensity help him project as a two-way center in the NHL down the road.
But after making picks at Nos. 5 and 12 overall, the Blue Jackets didn’t select again until the 44th pick in the middle of the second round. And when that choice came around and Del Bel Belluz was on the board, the Blue Jackets didn’t have to wait long to grab the centerman.
“We had him rated in the first round, so we’re happy to get him where we got him,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said at the draft in Montreal. “Time will tell again how accurate, how right we were with our rankings and our list, but we were happy to get him there.”
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Two months later, Del Bel Belluz hasn’t missed many meals, but in a good way. They’ve helped fuel workouts that allowed him to gain 12 pounds of muscle this summer, and Del Bel Belluz will be a key part of the Blue Jackets squad that heads to Traverse City, Mich., today to take part in the annual NHL Prospect Tournament.
It’s an early chance to shine for CBJ draft picks like Del Bel Belluz, who will likely see a ton of ice time in the three-game event that begins Thursday afternoon with a contest against St. Louis.
“I’m excited to play some hockey games against some older guys and some other really good prospects — and with some really good prospects,” he said. “So yeah, it should be fun. For me, I’m just trying to go in with an open mind, not try to overthink too much. Go in and play my game and control what I can.”
This past season, that worked to the point Del Bel Belluz had impressive statistics across the board. The 18-year-old finished with more than a point per game (30-46-76 in 68 games) and posted a plus-23 rating. Going into the draft, while some scouts dinged him for his speed, an area he must improve, his skill, vision, shot and defensive play were all given high marks by scouts.
That’s a combination that allows a player to be one of the top picks in the draft, but Del Bel Belluz knows what he’s trying to accomplish in the big picture still lies ahead.
“Getting drafted is just the first part,” Del Bel Belluz said. “After that, now the hard work starts, trying to get a contract and trying to make the lineup. There is a honeymoon phase at the very beginning, but then reality sets in and it’s time to work.”
He’s done just that with his efforts over the past two months since the draft. He admits there was a level of excitement among both himself and his family after he was chosen by the Blue Jackets, but quickly, the reality was he’d have to spend his summer improving both on and off the ice.
Work in the gym and sticking to a good diet helped him add the muscle, which will surely come in handy when he comes off the Traverse experience and heads to Blue Jackets training camp next week.
The likelihood is Del Bel Belluz will return this upcoming season to the junior hockey ranks, where he’ll be expected to be one of the top players in the OHL with the Steelheads, who were one of the best teams in the league a season ago. But every NHL team can use center depth, and Del Bel Belluz can show he’s close to ready for the big time with a solid showing during CBJ camp.
“There’s a lot of excitement, but with that comes a lot of hard work,” he said of his thoughts heading to CBJ camp. “I’m ready to put the work in. Summer was good. Spent a lot of time at the gym and on the ice, a little time with family, but mostly just getting to work.”
For Ole Bjorgvik-Holm, a Blue Jackets draft pick who spent last year playing with Del Bel Belluz in Mississauga, it would be no surprise to see the young center make a quick move up the ranks.
“He can play,” Bjorgvik-Holm said. “He’s so skilled. Sick shot, good on the power play. He’s a really good draft pick.”