A little over a week ago, I wrote the New York Islanders had some tough decisions to make ahead of the trade deadline. Since then, things have been made more complicated. The team’s needs have reached a new height, but the assets they have available, and may or may not be willing to trade, aren’t as clear as they were just a few days ago. Specifically, Kieffer Bellows is making things complicated for general manager, Lou Lamoriello. Should he stay, or should he go?
Bellows’ Stock Rises
With nearly a month between games, Bellows was called into action against the New Jersey Devils last weekend after Anders Lee went down with an injury, one that will sideline him for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. Bellows’ ascension to the first line was a bit of a surprise, though the Islanders don’t have a lot of options at the moment. Following a poor performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in February, head coach Barry Trotz said in his postgame availability that Bellows had “been in every meeting (and) every practice, so there (are) not any excuses.”
He started out rusty, even unsure of himself, and who could blame him? After Trotz’s comments, any rookie would have a few butterflies in their stomach. But as his first game back wore on, he began to look comfortable alongside Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle on the first line. Eventually, he scored a beautiful goal off the rush with Barzal, threading the needle to the former Calder Trophy winner before receiving a pass back and firing the puck home.
His second goal of the game was even more impressive. He took the puck wide on the defender and brought it to the net with a great power move to give the Islanders the lead.
But this piece isn’t just about how Bellows scored three goals in two games despite looking green at times. It’s about how his place presents an interesting situation for the Islanders. Sure, on the surface, this is great news; he’s scoring goals and has done so in impressive fashion for two out of three times when the team sorely needs it. Digging deeper, however, it begs a question of Lamoriello about how to proceed – is Bellows an asset to be leveraged or to be protected?
Like a forward entering the offensive zone, Lamoriello is going to need to make some quick decisions about his roster. Their schedule for the rest of March puts them head-to-head with the teams vying for the four coveted spots in the MassMutual East Division, including a three-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers. That puts Lamoriello’s timeline in a pressure cooker even more so than it may have been already when you consider COVID protocols, a less than ideal situation for a general manager who’s known for his saying, “If you have time, use it.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Lamoriello said, “Whatever we can do to make ourselves better, we will be doing that. I think we’re always trying to find a scoring winger, whether it was because of Anders’ situation or not. But that’s not something that’s easy to do.” And that’s true, though it’s probably a little easier as Bellows value goes up. Additionally, with this year’s draft not being very deep and hit-or-miss with fewer games being played and limited scouting, Bellows now looks like he could be packaged with a first-round pick in the upcoming draft for the winger Lamoriello seeks.
It also helps knowing Wahlstrom appears to have a future with the team, helping to solidify the forward group in the short term, which may make it easier to move Bellows. On the other side of the equation, is it too soon to give up on the rookie forward? He’s shown some real skill in limited time. Even Wahlstrom didn’t look fantastic in his first chunk of games this season, who’s to say Bellows can’t get more comfortable and move the needle?
It’s a difficult decision that Lamoriello will need to make, and quickly. By the end of the month, it’s possible the Islanders fall to third or fourth place in the division, making each game even more valuable as the trade deadline approaches on April 12. Can Big Lou pull off a move sooner than later? Will Bellows be an Islanders beyond the month of March? We’ll find out soon enough.
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