Lane Lambert, like any NHL coach, is tasked with giving the Islanders the best opportunity to win at that moment. Yet he must balance the two possible ways to evaluate Oliver Wahlstrom, the sharpshooting right wing who is returning after suffering a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 27.
The first is how Wahlstrom can help immediately and where he might fit into the lineup. The second is projecting how much better Wahlstrom might be as his knee strengthens.
“It’s a good question,” Lambert said on Sunday after two groups practiced at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. “I think you’re doing a little bit of both. Certainly, we are in the moment. The season starts a couple of weeks from now. You’re looking for who’s going to take that opportunity.”
When the Islanders play their fourth preseason game on Monday night against the Devils at Prudential Center, Wahlstrom likely will play on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s third line with Anders Lee. That trio skated together with the apparent game group on Sunday.
It would be the second preseason game for Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, who had seven goals and nine assists in 35 games last season before being injured. He logged 17:20 without a shot — including 5:16 of power-play time — in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Flyers while skating with center Karson Kuhlman and Dmytro Timashov.
“Each day I’m kind of getting better and better,” Wahlstrom said. “The timing of the game. The wall play is coming at you. Everything is coming at you. I only played one game so far. I’d like to play as many as I can just to get my legs going and get the timing. Hitting someone and getting hit and battling. I think that’s going to gradually come for sure.”
Wahlstrom, who agreed to a one-year, $874,125 contract as a restricted free agent without arbitration rights that essentially serves as a prove-it deal, certainly has competition for a roster spot.
Simon Holmstrom continues to skate with Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal on the top line and would give himself a better chance of earning that role full-time with more accurate shooting. Julien Gauthier skated with second-line center Brock Nelson and left wing Pierre Engvall on Sunday, and Lambert is intrigued with his speed and size.
“You want competition,” Lambert said. “There’s some tough decisions coming.”
Lambert downplayed any significance to Ross Johnston and Hudson Fasching being the only two forwards from last season’s Islanders roster to practice with the other group, composed of players likely ticketed for the AHL.
“Just balanced out the numbers,” Lambert said. “I thought Johnner, Kyle MacLean, Fasching all played great last night.”
Johnston and MacLean comprised two-thirds of the fourth line in Saturday night’s 5-3 win over the Rangers at UBS Arena and each had an assist. Fasching also had an assist as he skated with Nelson and Engvall.
Notes & quotes: Goalie Ilya Sorokin is expected to make his second preseason start on Monday with Semyon Varlamov backing him up.