Heading into New York Islanders training camp, there were a few players highlighted as bubble players with the best chance to make the team. That list consisted of young guns like Josh Ho-Sang and Sebastian Aho and veterans like Luca Sbisa (at camp on a professional tryout contract) and Tom Kühnhackl.
However, halfway through the team’s preseason schedule, a new name has emerged as the front-runner for a roster spot: Kieffer Bellows.
Bellows Turns it Around
Drafted 19th overall by the Isles in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Bellows spent the first season after his draft year at Boston University. Unfortunately for Bellows, his freshman season didn’t necessarily go as planned, scoring just seven goals and 14 points in 34 games. After the season had ended, Bellows made the “tough decision” to leave BU for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, who still held his rights after drafting him back in 2013.
At this point, some Islander fans watching from afar were nervous. Watching first-round picks fail to live up to expectations is nothing new for Isles fans who have seen several disappoint including Nino Niederreiter (fifth overall in 2010), Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall in 2012), Michael Dal Colle (fifth overall in 2014), and to some extent, Ryan Strome (fifth overall in 2011).
However, Bellows turned it around in Portland, scoring 41 goals and 74 points in just 56 games. In between that, the Edina, Minnesota native represented his country at the World Juniors scoring nine goals and one assist in seven games.
The nine goals he scored is the most by an American player in a single World Junior championship, surpassing the legendary Jeremy Roenick, who previously held that record with eight.
Preseason Praise for Bellows
On a team with Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Nick Leddy, and so many others, it’s pretty crazy, but not at all wrong, to say that Bellows has been the Isles’ best player this preseason.
The 20-year-old has played in four preseason games thus far and has really stood out, proving to be a difference maker and a threat on the ice.
In his first preseason appearance, Bellows brought the fans at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum to their feet, scoring the go-ahead goal on the power play and adding an assist in a 3-0 win.
So far, the team is 3-1-0 with Bellows in the lineup but even in the lone loss, a 5-1 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers, Bellows was the team’s best player, responsible for seven of the Isles’ 32 shots on goal.
In his third preseason contest, a 2-0 win over the New Jersey Devils, Bellows really made a name for himself, using his quick and accurate shot to score yet another go-ahead goal on the power play. In total, Bellows has three points in four games with two exhibition contests remaining on the schedule.
His impressive performances have the decision makers on Long Island taking notice including head coach Barry Trotz.
“He’s got really good hands and shoots the puck to score,” Trotz told the media after a 2-0 win on Thursday. “He doesn’t shoot the puck just to put it on net, he’s shooting to score. A really good young player and he continues to produce every game so he’s getting an opportunity.”
However, for Trotz, it isn’t only his shot that makes Bellows so good. “I know he can shoot the puck, that’s what he does,” Trotz told Andrew Gross of Newsday after the Islander won their preseason opener last Sunday. “At the end, he chewed on a point shot to make sure he defended well. To me, that means more than the goal and the assist.”
How to Fit Bellows Into the Lineup
Unfortunately for Bellows, the team is a little crowded at the forward position, and was already crowded before he began to make a name for himself throughout these exhibition games.
The top-six is pretty much set in stone, with a projected top line of Anthony Beauvillier, Barzal, and Eberle, and a second line of Lee, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey.
After that, the bottom-six is anyone’s guess, although Trotz has consistently kept a line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck together. The trio was widely-known as the best fourth line in the league from 2014 to 2016 and has been reunited during the preseason by Trotz after Martin was re-acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the summer.
The third line presents Bellows with his best opportunity at cracking the roster, but he has a ton of competition. In our season preview, we projected a third line of Andrew Ladd, Jan Kovar, and Ho-Sang. But if that is the third line, and Trotz keeps the fourth line together, that leaves three free agent signings out of the lineup: Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Kühnhackl as well as Ross Johnston who signed a four-year extension with the team this summer.
This cluster of forwards doesn’t work out too well for Kovar, Ho-Sang, and Bellows since all three can be sent down to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, without going through waivers. Johnston and Kühnhackl are another two candidates to be sent down as well, but all other 30 clubs would first have to pass on the chance of picking them up.
The left wing spot on the third line would be a perfect fit for Bellows and there’s a chance he could end up there come opening night in Raleigh, North Carolina on Oct. 4.
Ladd, who would likely slot into that position, hasn’t appeared in any preseason games and has missed the last six practices due to what Trotz describes as tightness. Although Trotz said on Friday that the 32-year-old is “getting closer” to returning, the spot would be a perfect fit for Bellows.
What Bellows has done this preseason is impressive and with just two games left on the exhibition schedule, he has two more chances to prove he belongs. If Bellows is able to continue his strong play, management might have no choice but to make room for him on the roster.