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2018 World Juniors: Bellows finding another gear has been welcome surprise for USA

A move to the WHL and into Team USA's leadership group has allowed Kieffer Bellows to take his game to another level, and it's paying off as the Americans are heading to the semifinal at the world juniors.

BUFFALO – Teenagers are unpredictable. We all know that. But those surprises can sometimes be positive and when it comes to New York Islanders pick Kieffer Bellows, it appears that some adversity has really helped him find another level to his game.

Bellows was the offensive impetus for Team USA in their 4-2 quarterfinal victory over Russia. The left winger opened the scoring with a big-time blast, then put the Americans ahead for good in the third, breaking a 2-2 tie with an even heavier cannon shot that sent goalie Vladislav Sukhachyov’s water bottle flying.

In the bigger scheme of things, Bellows has been a lot more consistent at the world juniors last year than he was in 2017, when his only truly good game came in the gold-medal classic against Canada. And the fact he’s wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater is a great indicator of how he’s grown since then.

“Last year, he wasn’t playing a ton,” said coach Bob Motzko. “He stayed so positive on the bench and then he got two goals in the championship game. A lot of these guys are asked to play different roles than on their normal team. Sometimes it throws them off-kilter. He stayed with it. He came back this summer and was a great guy in the room, had everyone’s respect. Building in a short tournament, putting an ‘A’ on his sweater was a no-brainer.”

And it’s nice to hear that Bellows has been such a positive for the Americans, because his post-draft career hasn’t always been smooth. The Islanders first-rounder came from the U.S. National Team Development Program and kicked off last year as a member of the Boston University Terriers. But it was an open secret in the scouting community that he wasn’t happy at B.U., where a star-studded lineup (including his NTDP linemate Clayton Keller) limited his role. Bellows tallied 14 points in 34 games and was a team-worst minus-9. Few expected him to return for a sophomore season. Sure enough, Bellows left the NCAA for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and this year he’s been huge on a line with Vegas Golden Knights first-rounder Cody Glass and Winnipeg Jets pick Skyler McKenzie. 

Bellows believes that the denser game schedule of major junior has been a benefit, not to mention coach Mike Johnston’s approach to systems.

“My two-way game has improved, my defensive zone has improved a lot and my skating has gotten a lot better,” Bellows said. “Mike really promotes transition hockey – defense to offense right away – and that has helped me in this tournament.”

And as a returning player, he’s taking on a leadership role for a team that has some great young talent taking in their first world juniors, from Brady Tkachuk to Bellows’ roommate, Casey Mittelstadt. Bellows believes he has grown as a person since last year’s tourney.

“Most definitely,” he said. “Outside the rink and on the bench I’ve taken on a bigger role, helping guys that haven’t been here before, especially in tight games or games when we’re down. It’s nice.”

His most important contribution, however – and the distinct skill that will be his ticket to the NHL one day – is that devastating shot he can unleash.

“He’s got an absolute rocket,” Mittelstadt said. “It’s what he does best.”

The Russians found that out the hard way and no doubt Sweden will have to be on guard when they clash with Team USA in the semifinal. As for Bellows, getting the puck in that sweet spot at the perfect time and trajectory is indeed awesome.

“It feels good,” he said. “When you put everything into it and it goes in, it’s obviously a nice feeling.”

Feeling good? Putting everything into it? He may have been talking about his shot, but those words could also describe the new Kieffer Bellows – and that’s great news for both Team USA and the New York Islanders.

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