It was the prevailing thought that New York Islanders would enter the 2022-23 NHL season with largely the same roster, save for defender Alexander Romanov, who came over in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens at the 2022 NHL Draft. But as training camp and the preseason have progressed, things don’t seem so simple. After waiving Richard Panik, now with the Bridgeport Islanders after clearing, they have one roster spot available, raising some questions – specifically about the forward group. Could general manager Lou Lamoriello be weighing the decision to waive Kieffer Bellows in favor of another forward?
Islanders’ Bellows Faces Stiff Competition
By and large, the Islanders’ forward group isn’t going to change all that much, particularly their opening night roster, though the lines are hardly finalized. However, it’s not far-fetched to believe the likes of Bellows may not have a spot solidified as much as we previously thought. At the beginning of training camp, the 22nd and 23rd roster spots were clearly held by Bellows and Ross Johnston, the latter of which has limited versatility and is likely a Matt Martin or Cal Clutterbuck replacement should they fall to injury. Bellows, on the other hand, has shown some flashes but has been largely inconsistent during his short 67-game NHL career, amassing just 25 points.
Lamoriello was clear in an early training camp press conference that youngsters Aatu Raty and William Dufour would start the season in the American Hockey League (AHL) with Bridgeport, eliminating some competition for Bellows from the outset. From there, it seemed like a crazy idea to think 28-year-old forward Nikita Soshnikov would make much of an impact having not played in the NHL since the 2018-19 season with the St. Louis Blues for only five games.
Soshnikov didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the Kontinental Hockey League, putting together his best season in 2019-20 with 48 points in 58 games, including 27 goals. After that, his production fell flat until the 2021-22 KHL Playoffs, when he put up eight points in 13 games. Still, nothing to write home about.
Enter Soshnikov at this year’s Islanders’ training camp and he has proved to be stiff competition for Bellows. And while he may be relatively unknown to Islanders fans, Martin remembers him from their time with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He’s kind of a high motor guy and obviously a smaller guy, but a good skill set and plays with a little bit of an edge as well,” Martin said at camp. “He hounds the puck, the kind of people you want in the locker room on your team. He’s a good person, happy to have him here.”
That tenacity and skill were on display against the New Jersey Devils last week, when Dufour found Soshnikov with a great transition pass, and he didn’t miss his chance to show the coaches and management what he was capable of.
To make matters worse for Bellows, head coach Lane Lambert has liked what he’s seen from Soshnikov so far. “I like his skating. He’s quick. He thinks and sees the game pretty well,” Lambert said recently. “I think his strength right now is that speed and his ability to get in on pucks and battle for pucks. Obviously, the last couple of years has helped his skill game, but certainly, the focus is for him to get it in on pucks.”
Then there’s Simon Holmstrom, the team’s 2019 first-round pick who is coming off of a breakout season with Bridgeport, just his third in North America, with 43 points in 68 games. In the Islanders’ 4-1 preseason loss to the New York Rangers, Holmstrom skated 19:02, including 3:55 on the power play, with one shot on goal, two total attempts, a pair of giveaways, and a takeaway.
“I liked him,” Lambert said of Holmstrom after the game. “I thought he made some plays. He looked comfortable and poised. And you know, I thought he looked good tonight. He was one of our better players.” Holmstrom has mentioned its “NHL or bust” this season, hoping to make an impact after being overlooked for a number of seasons.
It’s this type of tenacity that could easily find Bellows in the AHL in place of a player that’s hungrier than him. The Islanders run on energy and defense, and if he can’t prove to be a force in camp and the preseason, he might be on the outside looking in.
How does Soshnkiov and Holmstrom’s play affect Bellows? Well, it’s become increasingly clear that defenseman Robin Salo is in an excellent position to make the final cut for the Islanders heading into the season, meaning the 23rd spot on the roster would be taken up. And if one of Soshnikov or Holmstrom earns a spot, someone needs to go on waivers, and Bellows could be the odd man out. That may be his saving grace, however. Would Lamoriello be willing to risk losing Bellows to waivers? He did just sign a one-year extension for $1.2 million, but if he doesn’t earn his spot, it may not mean much.
So if Bellows plans on keeping his spot, even in the press box, he’ll need to make sure he’s a step ahead of Soshnikov and Holmstrom during the preseason. Even as his bond with Oliver Wahlstrom has helped him get through camp, and despite his NHL experience, he is not a lock for a roster spot come mid-October. He needs to impress management and his coaches to ensure he stays in the NHL and isn’t on his way back to Bridgeport, or off the Islanders entirely. In the end, it’s his spot to lose.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.