Marlies' Bellows determined to parlay tryout into Leafs contract
Kieffer Bellows is making the most of his opportunity since signing a pro tryout with the Toronto Marlies late last month.
"I want to show that I can earn an NHL contract," the winger said of his audition with the American Hockey League affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I also want to help this team win games. However long it takes or however long I'm here, whatever the situation is, I want to help this team go on a winning streak."
Bellows is off to a strong start, with five goals and six assists through seven games with the Marlies. He's hit the scoresheet in each outing and slotted in on the top line during a pair of weekend games against the Manitoba Moose.
"He's a goal scorer," Marlies coach John Gruden told reporters on Sunday. "He has a knack for the net. He has a good release, and when he's inside and he's battling, he's actually a strong guy [6-foot-1, 195 pounds] and tough to contain. It's good to see him keep getting rewarded. There's still more to his game that he can grow, but he's understanding where he's most effective."
A first-round pick (19th overall) by the New York Islanders in 2016, Bellows has struggled to stick in the NHL while producing 14 goals and 14 assists in 95 games over four seasons. In 144 AHL games, he has recorded 42 goals and 29 assists.
Last year, the Islanders put Bellows on waivers, and he was claimed by the Philadelphia Flyers. He scored three goals in 27 games with the Flyers before becoming a restricted free agent. The 25-year-old did not receive a qualifying offer and attended Carolina Hurricanes training camp on a pro tryout. He was released before the season started.
Bellows credits the players on the Marlies for making him feel comfortable right away in Toronto. There's also a comfort level with Gruden, who was an assistant with the Islanders when Bellows played there, and a connection to Marlies general manager Ryan Hardy, who once recruited him to the United States National Team Development Program.
"Hardy believed in me back when I left Sioux Falls [in the USHL] to go to the Program," Bellows said. "There's a trust factor there when you're a young kid, 17, 18, and going to a different city ... It turned out to be a great step for me and helped my game."
Bellows scored 50 goals in 62 games with the USA Hockey under-18 squad in his draft-eligible season before moving on to Boston University for one year. Bellows scored 41 goals in 56 games with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League during his final year of junior play.
Hardy left the US NTDP, where he served as director of player development, to become an amateur scout with the Boston Bruins. After a couple seasons in Boston, Hardy became general manager of the Chicago Steel (USHL). Hardy is now an assistant general manager (minor league operations) with the Leafs.
"Keeping in close touch with him throughout the years has really helped bond a relationship," said Bellows. "I know I can trust Hardy, and he believes he can trust me as well. I just have to come in and do the work and prove him right."
Bellows also sees a fit with new Leafs general manager Brad Treliving, who sought out offensive players with an edge during his first summer at the helm.
"I'm a power forward," Bellows said. "I love to get to the dirty areas in front of the net, the corners, and I know I can score goals and I can make plays. I'm not afraid to get in battles, get in front of the net, play a little chippy here and there, and that's just always been a part of my game growing up."
On Sunday, Bellows scored from the blue paint.
"He's playing an honest game," Marlies winger Alex Steeves told reporters. "Getting a goal in the crease is really big. You're not always going to beat a goalie clean with a shot so nice to see him getting goals in different ways."
While it's nice to find the back of the net, Bellows insists he's drilling down on other parts of his game right now.
"I've always had that offensive flair, but if I focus on the D-zone and the play away from the puck then good things are going to come," he said. "It's about the nitty gritty details in the D-zone. I'm making sure that I'm doing my job, but also being aware of other people's jobs and helping them out. I'm focusing on what I can do to help the team break the puck out, be good defensively, and not get scored on."
Bellows, who is plus-5 with the Marlies, can lean on Toronto's extensive player development staff for help. He feels like "a kid in a candy shop" when he considers all the resources available. And the Minnesota native already sees progress thanks to time spent with skating consultant Paul Matheson.
"Working on constantly moving your feet and quick starts," he said. "Those first three steps in your stride are so important, especially as a winger coming off the wall. Whether it's off a break out or attacking the offensive zone or cutbacks in the offensive zone, it's just making sure those first three steps are quick."
Bellows feels quicker on the ice, but it may not be a quick path back to the NHL. He has to remain patient and has been leaning on his father, Brian Bellows, who played 1,188 NHL games during a 17-year career, for support.
"His main advice coming here was just to relax, have fun and play my game," Bellows revealed. "He said, 'There's a reason you've played in the NHL before, there's a reason you've performed in the NHL and AHL, so just go play your game, work hard and just enjoy the guys and have fun. It's all part of it.' He tells me all the time, 'I wish I could go back and be a player again.' He goes, 'It's not going to be forever, so really enjoy these moments.'"