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Barry Trotz hopes Oliver Wahlstrom becomes a top-line forward for Islanders

New York Islanders right wing Oliver Wahlstrom looks

New York Islanders right wing Oliver Wahlstrom looks on against the San Jose Sharks in the second period of an NHL hockey game at UBS Arena on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The most common frustration among Islanders fans, based upon unscientific polling of social media — other than, you know, will this team ever start winning? — regards youthful sharpshooter Oliver Wahlstrom and whether he will start logging more minutes as a top-six forward.

So asked by the fan base and so asked of coach Barry Trotz.

The answer, which will be revealed in longform shortly, is nuanced and, as always with Trotz, rooted in a player’s defensive performance.

But, skipping over the details, Trotz concluded with this: "Do I want him to be a top-line winger? Absolutely. And hopefully he can get there."

Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018 and the youngest Islander after turning 21 in June, entered Saturday’s game against the Devils at UBS Arena with eight goals — one shy of Brock Nelson’s team lead — and three assists in 22 games.

Four of those goals and one assist came on the power play; Wahlstrom has taken up the Alex Ovechkin role of getting free for one-timers and hard blasts from the left circle.

He’s mostly been assigned to the Islanders’ third line this season, either centered by Jean-Gabriel Pageau, for a short stint by Otto Koivula and, in the four games preceding Saturday, by the effective Austin Czarnik.

He’s also played select shifts with top-line center Mathew Barzal and Nelson, when healthy.

Going back to the unscientific polling, the overwhelming desire among Islanders fans is to see Wahlstrom attached on a more permanent basis to Barzal.

The Islanders’ second goal in Thursday night’s 4-3 loss to the Predators at UBS Arena was Anders Lee from Barzal and Wahlstrom — albeit coming on the man advantage and not five-on-five — further whetting that appetite.

But Wahlstrom’s ice time has been meted out judiciously. Wahlstrom was averaging 13:06 entering Saturday, ranking him 22nd on the Islanders and behind temporary forward fill-in Richard Panik (14:55). He had two assists against the Predators yet logged only 10:15 (fourth-liner Ross Johnston was on the ice for 11:56).

Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello have displayed a deliberate care with the development of their highly touted young prospects. The way Noah Dobson has been eased into a top-six defense role during his three seasons after being taken No. 12 in 2018 — a strategy with visible dividends this season — is a prime example.

The flip side, of course, is that the Islanders are a team that has struggled to score — their 46 goals entering Saturday were the second fewest in the NHL — so why not use the team’s most dangerous shot in Wahlstrom with its best playmaker in Barzal?

As promised, here’s Trotz’s full response (and "detail" means defensive play):

"Everybody’s been up and down the lineup. Wahlly’s game is coming offensively. His detail, [it’s] depending on who he’s playing with. If you’re playing with Pageau, it’s probably pretty easy to play with Pager because he’s very predictable. Playing with Barzy is not as predictable. That’s where moving a guy like Wahlly up sometimes can hinder him a little bit because you’re playing with a little bit of a wild card in Barzy sometimes versus maybe a Pager or a Nellie.

"But he’s learning. He’s getting shifts with Barzy here and there. He’s getting shifts with Pager. He’s getting shifts with Czarnik, who’s done a really good job for us. He’s getting shifts with Zach Parise. He’s got to continue to evolve his game by learning how to play with different sets of guys so he’s not just a ‘I’m a shooter; get me the puck and I’m going to score.’ There’s a lot more to the game than that one element.

"He’s starting to feel it. It’s easy to learn when you’re feeling it. When you’re not scoring, all you can think about is scoring. I can talk until I’m blue about play without the puck and decision-making. Because he’s a goal-scorer, when he’s not scoring, that’s all he can think about.

"The time for that will come, but it has to be the right time. Because if it’s not, it just throws everybody for a loop. It may look sexy for the analytics world or your fantasy hockey team. But it doesn’t always apply to the real world.

"But yes, do I want him to be a top-line winger? Absolutely. And hopefully he can get there."

Golyshev: Bye-bye

Anatolii Golyshev, 26, a fourth-round pick in 2016, cleared waivers this past week for the purpose of mutually terminating his one-year, $750,000 deal. He was a steady points producer the last eight seasons in the KHL, but recalled from AHL Bridgeport during the Islanders’ COVID-19 outbreak, he was a healthy scratch for two games before being reassigned.

That apparently was enough for the 5-7, 187-pound Golyshev, who had five goals and two assists in 15 games with Bridgeport.

"Goly hasn’t proven it at this level," Trotz said of the healthy scratches. "I felt other people are a little bit ahead of him. That’s really my choice. I just don’t feel that he’s quite there."

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