“There were situations last season where he wouldn’t go three or four games without a goal, but he always focused on getting chances and doing the right things.”
That’s how Mike Johnston described the kind of player Kieffer Bellows is when it comes to adversity.
Johnston, was Bellows head coach and is the general manager of the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. He watched the Edina, Minnesota native all of last season as he prepares to fight for a spot with the New York Islanders in training camp two weeks from now.
Bellows made his way to Portland after a very rough campaign for the Terriers of Boston University in 2016-17 where he only totaled 14 points in 34 contests. The move was a game-changer for the 20-year old. Last season, Bellows was a part of the Winterhawks Big Three with Cody Glass and Skyler McKenzie. In 56 games, the left winger registered 74 points in 56 games, helping lead Portland to the second round of the WHL Playoffs.
“I thought he had a big impact on our team in just the way he plays the game,” Johnston noted about Bellows progression last year. “If you watched him over the course of the year and in the World Juniors, I really thought he carried his speed well and overall his quickness.”
Since he was drafted 19th overall in 2016, one of the detriments to Bellows game has been his skating. Over the past two years, he’s worked tirelessly to get that facet of his game to become another advantage along with his elite shot and physical presence. Prospect experts, Corey Pronman of The Athletic and ESPN’s Chris Peters, made it apparent that at the World Junior Tournament in January that Bellows looked the best he’s ever looked when it comes to his skating. The improvement was also noticeable during his season in Portland.
“I liked that he’s gotten quicker over the last year to 18 months,” said Johnston.
Speaking of the World Juniors, Johnston was proud to see Bellows continue his excellent season with his record-setting performance in Buffalo. His performance was also another glimpse into what Islanders fans can hope to expect from him if not this season, then in 2019-20.
“When he went to the World Junior, I watched him the year before,” Johnston remembered as they thought Bellows might come to play in Portland. Bellows would in fact not head to Portland, but Johnston and his staff still continued to recruit him. “I thought last year, he scored. He controlled the play. He played with intensity, was physical, and played a gritty game.”
Bellows tournament was one for the record books despite Team USA’s third-place finish. His nine goals were the most by a player in any tourney, surpassing Jeremy Roenick’s performance in 1989.
Beyond the tournament, Bellows continued to hone his game in the second half for Portland and the numbers continued to show it. Johnston praised that his game matured a great deal in all areas. Questioning if Bellows is ready to play for the Islanders right now, Johnston thinks the time is coming sooner than later.
“It’s a big step and tough step for a kid. But he’s close. He’s really close. And most teams find guys who can score. It’s tough to find those guys who can score.”
Before he arrived in Portland, the former NHL coach was very fond of Bellows from when the Winterhawks drafted him in the WHL Bantam Draft five years ago. Watching him grow up from when he was a sophomore leading Edina High School to a state championship to his time in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede, Johnston has always seen Bellows as a mature individual. But it’s also his drive, resiliency, and confidence that has really stuck out all these years.
When Bellows arrived in Portland at this time last season, Johnston — because he didn’t watch him struggle at B.U. — wanted to get the winger back on track. Johnston saw in Bellows demeanor that he was ready to turn the corner and get back into the swing of things.
“I just really liked his attitude overall that he came in with,” Johnston said. “That’s the most important thing. He came in wanting to have a great year, to make sure he got his scoring back because he felt like he didn’t produce much at Boston. His focus when he came in was outstanding and it showed the whole year.”
Bellows continued to improve throughout the season in Portland. And it was his support of the puck and the touching up the little details of his game that Johnston really saw that made Bellows a more polished player. Another facet that Bellows game took hold of was penalty-killing. When he wasn’t scoring, Bellows made sure to kill penalties as the year went along to add more versatility.
Not a lot also seems to rattle Bellows, which could be pivotal if he does indeed snag a roster spot or finds new surroundings in the AHL. Johnston pointed out that his confidence doesn’t waver and it was on display in the playoffs after Kieffer went scoreless in game six, but rebounded big time in game seven against Spokane to help his team win their series.
“Those types of players always seem to rise to the occasion. And through his history, he’s always done that,” Johnston said praising Bellows.
If there was one time that the Winterhawks bench boss finally came to the realization that Bellows was ready to push for a spot with the varsity, it was last November.
In that month, Bellows — and his linemates, Glass and McKenzie — were the best line in the league and were playing at a level above the competition. “They took off,” Johnston said with enthusiasm. “This kid is getting ready for the Islanders and he’s really going to push for a spot.”
During his time in the Islanders organization — and even when he was selected — Bellows has been perceived to be the next great power forward. He will have a legit shot to prove that all the hype is real.
“I want to make the team next year,” the 20-year-old left wing told Newsday back in late June at Isles rookie camp. “That’s been my mindset all summer because when I get to camp, that’s my goal.”
Whether he gets the nine-game tryout or if he totally blows the coaching staff away and earns a regular spot for this season, Bellows looks primed and ready to make his presence felt. He’s a winner and has won a whole lot on many levels.
And even if Bellows ends up in Bridgeport for the season, it won’t be a stunt in his development. That opportunity will give him another chance to show his talent and skill on the pro level.
“If I’m the Islanders, I’m looking at him and I’m saying, this kid can score, he’s a big-body presence, and he wins?” Johnston continued. “That’s the most important thing.
Johnston doesn’t envision Bellows coming back to Portland anytime soon, and he sees Bellows in the same light as Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter — guys who played under him and then stepped right into the NHL. And while he might not have immediate success, Johnston thinks Bellows can have bigger success down the line.
“Long-term, Isles fans should be excited because he can score,” Johnston added. “His hard shot, quick release. Those players in my mind are really hard to find.”
So, for Bellows, there’s a lot riding on the opportunity in front of him. Having had success at every level of his career, Johnston believes now it’s his time to shine.
“I think he’s ready. I really do. He’s going to certainly open up some eyes in camp.”