Oliver Wahlstrom, with the blistering shot and scoring potential he flashed as a rookie, could be the most intriguing Islander heading into next season.
If the 11th overall pick in 2018 continues to develop his overall game, he could earn a top-six role and evolve into a leading goal scorer.
Coach Barry Trotz was asked and answered a fair share of questions about Wahlstrom during the just-completed playoff run, namely, why wasn’t he in the lineup once he recovered from a lower-body injury suffered in Game 5 of the first round?
Instead, Trotz continued to use grinder Leo Komarov on top-line center Mathew Barzal’s left wing while keeping Travis Zajac on third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s right wing along with fellow ex-Devil Kyle Palmieri. The Lightning ended the Islanders’ season with a 1-0 win in Game 7 of their NHL semifinal series on Friday night on a shorthanded goal.
"If you could sit in the coach’s room and know the injuries and all the possibilities, it’s easy to play fantasy hockey when you don’t have all the information," said Trotz, adding he never questions the decisions he’s made after the fact. "To beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, we weren’t going to really turn it into a track meet and go end-to-end and try to outscore them. We had to defend."
Regardless of his playoff contribution — Wahlstrom had a goal and two assists in the five games he played — it was an important season in his development. He had 12 goals and nine assists, playing 44 of the 56 regular-season games and started to earn Trotz’s trust defensively.
That will be key to how much ice time the 6-2, 205-pounder with a lethal righthanded wrist shot, not to mention his ability to set up atop the left circle for one-timers on the power play, carves out for himself next season.
"It’s really tough to get injured, you want to play with your brothers," Wahlstrom said. "At the same time, it was a good learning experience to go through that.
"A pretty big learning year, with what was going on in the world," added Wahlstrom, who went without a point in nine games for the Islanders during the 2019-20 season. "I thought my game evolved a little bit more as the year went on. It’s really exciting to play a little more consistently in this league. I’ve still got to go through camp next and go from there."
Wahlstrom described the way the Islanders play as a "grind, we grind teams out," but said he enjoys that style.
And one of Wahlstrom’s strengths is how much obvious enjoyment he gets from playing hockey. He spent one season at Boston College but was very candid that school wasn’t necessarily for him. He preferred concentrating on hockey full time.
Cameras caught him during the season singing along to the P.A. system on the bench, and Trotz likes that part of his personality.
Wahlstrom now can take the experience of going through a full NHL season — albeit a truncated one — and apply the lessons to next season.
"The comfort level is such a big thing and the confidence," said second-year defenseman Noah Dobson, selected 12th overall in 2018, of the growth between the rookie season and a sophomore campaign. "Just having a year where you’re around the guys and you know what it’s like on the road when you’re traveling. Once you get an idea of how you need to play at this level, that really allows you to take your game to the next level. Having the first year under your belt is huge."