Kieffer Bellows eager for WHL games with Winterhawks
The Portland Winterhawks, as team president Doug Piper noted on Tuesday, do not often hold a press conference to introduce new players.
But Kieffer Bellows is not just any player. Signing the New York Islanders prospect — selected 19th in last summer's NHL draft — turns the Winterhawks from a team on the rise to one with the highest of goals for the 2017-18 Western Hockey League season.
"It does change expectations," said Mike Johnston, Winterhawks vice president, general manager and coach. "We knew we had a good group coming back, but you add a 19-year-old player — like the year we added Seth Jones — they just change the look of your team."
The son of longtime NHL forward Brian Bellows, Kieffer Bellows is a power forward who has experienced success at multiple levels as a young hockey player.
Johnston said he knew after watching Bellows lead Edina, Minnesota, to a state high school championship in 2014 that he could be a special player if ever he came to Portland.
As a 16-year-old playing for Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League in 2014-15, Bellows had 33 goals in the regular season and nine goals in 12 playoff games, helping the Stampede to a league title. As a 17-year-old, he joined the U.S. Development Team and scored 66 goals in 85 games.
In January, Bellows scored two goals for the United States in the championship game at the 2017 World Juniors Championships as Team USA beat Canada for the title.
Bellows played at Boston University last season, but decided to forgo his remaining three years of NCAA eligibility to sign with the Winterhawks. He had seven goals and seven assists in 34 games as a freshman for the Terriers.
Bellows, who turns 19 on June 10, said the deciding factor was the 72-game WHL schedule.
"The biggest thing was I needed more games. I'm a player that likes to get into a rhythm. I love to play more games in a season," Bellows said. "I thought Boston (University) helped me develop a lot off the ice — helped with my strength and my speed. It was good to experience college. Coming here, the big part is playing more games."
At 6-0 and about 200 pounds, Bellows iwill be expected to score goals consistently. He joins a roster that returns plenty of firepower with Cody Glass (32 goals, 62 assists last season), Skyler McKenzie (42-42), Ryan Hughes (27-30) and Joachim Blichfeld (28-30).
"He's a very mature person. He's been through a lot. He's a well-cultured guy hockey wise," Johnston said of Bellows. "It changes everything. We could be inserting a 30-40 goal scorer into our lineup. … This changes the whole look of our team."
Associate coach Kyle Gustafson said adding a motivated, proven scorer is a big step for Portland.
"You have a great centerman like Cody who can get him the puck. I think our power play is going to be better because of Kieffer," Gustafson said. "Our team maturity is going to be better because of Kieffer — and a lot of intangibles, too."
The Winterhawks picked Bellows in the seventh round of the 2013 WHL bantam draft. Johnston said Bellows would have been a high selection except he was expected to choose college hockey over the WHL.
Johnston said the Winterhawks — primarily assistant general manager Matt Bardsley — keep in touch with all of their prospects, but stay away from a hard-sell approach to recruiting.
Bellows said Caleb Jones, who played with the Winterhawks the past two seasons and is expected to turn pro next season, was helpful in the process of deciding to join the Hawks. Jones and Bellows were teammates on Team USA for the World Junior Championships, and Bellows said he spoke with Jones several times as he was considering his options.
"I had a few phone calls with him to talk about what Portland is like and the team, the city and the fan base. He said all positive things," Bellows said. "He said Coach Johnston's a really tough coach on his players, but he helps develop you a lot. He's not going to let you slack off or cut corners. He's going to make sure you do everything right and that you work hard every single day."
Bellows said both his dad — who won a Memorial Cup with Kitchner in 1982 — and the Islanders left the decision to him.
"My dad was there for me, but he wanted me to decide on my own what was best: either go back to college or come here to Portland," Bellows said. "Once I told him I was going to come here he was excited for me. He thought it was good for me to go through this tough process."
His one season at Boston University was tough in terms of scoring. His 14 points were below expectations. But he said he's thankful for the experience.
"Last year I had some low numbers, but I felt that going through that struggle of a year really helped my mental toughness and my character as a player," Bellows said. "I showed I'm not just a scorer. I can also be a playmaker. I can go out there and hit guys. I can do whatever the coach wants me to do, whatever it's going to take to win."
Bellows is the second bantam-drafted player in recent seasons to join the Winterhawks after playing NCAA college hockey. Defenseman Jack Dougherty played as a freshman at Wisconsin before being drafted by Nashville and coming to Portland for the 2015-16 season.
Johnston said the Hawks have selected 15 players in the bantam draft who have chosen to play college hockey. Bellows and Dougherty are the only two who eventually came to Portland.
"Two out of 15, it's not great odds," Johnston said. "But anytime you get a player like that, they are really good players."
In the case of Bellows, it is a get worth a press conference.