Kieffer Bellows has made it no secret that he wants this to be the season in which he proves his worth to the Islanders.
The 24-year-old not only is competing for an everyday lineup spot on the wing, but also he was signed to only a one-year deal as a restricted free agent this summer for $1.2 million. The message is so obvious it goes without saying.
“It’s a big year for me,” Bellows said ahead of the preseason game Tuesday night against the Devils at Prudential Center, which the Islanders lost 4-1. “I’m on the one-year deal and I’m excited to go out there and have a big year. Show that I’m capable of playing all 82 games and go out there and, like I said before and I’ll say again, confidence is high in myself. If I can play well and help this team win games in the playoffs, make it far in the playoffs, then I know I did my job.”
Over his first three years with the Islanders, Bellows struggled to stick in the lineup, playing a career-high 45 games with 19 points in 2021-22. New coach Lane Lambert on Tuesday attributed that to inconsistency, the kind that every young player goes through. The time for Bellows to fall back on youth, though, is fading fast.
The roster math does work in his favor. Unlike Oliver Wahlstrom and Simon Holmstrom, Bellows would need to pass through waivers to get to Bridgeport, making an AHL assignment unlikely. There is a difference, though, between merely making the roster and being in the lineup on a nightly basis. Bellows was in the former category last season and Wahlstrom was in the latter. Notably, Wahlstrom played both Monday and Tuesday, because the Islanders wanted to see him in game action a second time.
Bellows, since re-signing, has spoken confidently about what he feels he can add.
“When I was consistently in the lineup there, it was just my aggressive mindset,” he said. “I was hard on pucks, I was shooting the puck, made a lot of plays and I feel like my defensive game has really turned a corner, especially last year, and I think I’m gonna bring that into this year.
“Working with Diane Ness, the skating coach, this whole summer helped a lot. I’m feeling really good this year. … My skating’s really improved and then just the aggressiveness on pucks, hard on pucks, and then just getting to the net.”
Bellows skated with Aatu Räty and Kyle Palmieri during the game Tuesday, finishing with 18:17 time on ice and two shots, including a three-on-two look during the first period that was gloved by Vitek Vanecek.
Lambert, who said in the morning he wanted Bellows to “impose his physical will” and be a prototypical power forward, gave a less-than-enthusiastic review.
“He had a couple chances, really good chance in the first period,” Lambert said. “I thought he played OK. I thought he showed himself OK.”
Bellows’ physicality — he finished last year with over 100 hits despite playing just 45 games — is an area in which his potential stands out, but the Islanders would like to see continue to improve.
“I think he’s developed it and [is] developing it,” Lambert said. “But certainly it’s something that you have to be consistent on. That’s the real key to it. It’s part of the development process and part of that process is be consistent with whatever you’re developing.”
As it relates to the last spot in the top 12, you get the feeling it will go to whichever player is closest to the end of that development process.