A year ago tonight, Kieffer Bellows was called up to make his NHL debut for the Islanders. The promotion was served as a purpose to spark the sputtering Isles offense. Bellows would tally his first point in the National â€” an assist in the Islanders OT win over the Dallas Stars â€” while two nights later he would pot his first two goals against the Kings. After that promising start it was a slow slide back down to the AHL.
When the Isles reconvened for the leagueâ€™s Return To Play format in the summer, Bellows was a part of the group fighting for one of the extra forward slots. Eventually left back as the club headed for the Toronto bubble, Bellows was hit a few months later for violating the leagueâ€™s performance-enhancing rules.
By that time, Bellowsâ€™ stock had dropped within the organization and his future with the Isles looked bleak.
Fast forward to now â€” the year to the day Bellows suited up for the variety for the first time â€” the 19th overall pick from 2016 has made his presence felt.
â€œI have trust in Bellows game,â€ Isles head coach Barry Trotz told reporters yesterday. â€œHeâ€™s getting chances. I think heâ€™s been around the net. Heâ€™s that type of guy. Hopefully, he just breaks out. That will just give him some confidence.â€
Bellows is still looking for his first point of the season;Â heâ€™s come close on several occasions. But itâ€™s his overall game thatâ€™s what has impressed the most.
The 22-year-old Bellows looks more confident without the puck as opposed to his short stint last season where he had trouble with the defensive aspect of the game. Itâ€™s one of the reasons his call-up only lasted eight games. Thereâ€™s also the spark that he, and fellow freshmen Oliver Wahlstrom, have brought to the lineup offensively, particularly the third line, which was a big question mark coming into this season.
The recent road trip, that line â€” centered by J.G. Pageau with Bellows and Wahlstrom manning the wings â€” was the teamâ€™s best line in the losses to Washington.
“I didn’t have any worries about them,â€ Trotz said.
As much as fans crave for his offense â€” thatâ€™s been his MO as a prospect in the Islesâ€™ system â€” seeing Bellows grow into a complete player has more significance. The points will come in due time, but Bellowsâ€™ development remains the most important thing right now. And onÂ such a veteran-heavy squad, itâ€™s nice to see him getting his chance and making the most of it. Cracking the Islesâ€™ lineup in recent years as a youngster, unless your name was Mat Barzal or Noah Dobson, hasnâ€™t been easy. The addition of the taxi squad because of COVID-19 protocols only adds another layer of difficulty.
Bellows has played in seven of the Islandersâ€™ nine games this season and with how heâ€™s performed thus far, he should see the ice a ton more. The reason being the difference from last year until now in his demeanor and that his play has greatly evolved.
The Islanders might have something in special in Bellows.
Heâ€™s come a long way in a yearâ€™s time.
When youâ€™re mentioned in the same vain as Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, you know youâ€™re doing big things. That seems to be the sentiment from Barry Trotz on his star center Mathew Barzal.
In The Athletic today, Isles beat writer Arthur Staple quoted Trotz saying, â€œMathewâ€™s one of those guys, the really high skilled guys with that tremendous speed like (Nathan) Mackinnon, (Connor) McDavid. When they give it up and get it back, theyâ€™re almost unstoppable. Thatâ€™s where Mathewâ€™s game has grown the most. And heâ€™ll still take you on one-on-one. Thatâ€™s the biggest growth, the offensive stuff without the puck.â€
Thatâ€™s a hell of an endorsement and an indictment on how Barzal has looked so far this year. He leads the team with ten points in nine games.
The Islanders will see something they havenâ€™t seen in nearly 15 years when they head to MSG on Monday for their next tilt with the Rangers. That being their Liberty â€œReverse Retroâ€ jerseys.
The last time the Isles faced the Blueshirts in those threads, they won 7-4 at MSG on the backs of Viktor Kozlovâ€™s four-goal performance.