Mathew Barzal-Oliver Wahlstrom combination a Barry Trotz chemistry experiment
Combining the developing Oliver Wahlstrom’s sharpshooting skills with Mathew Barzal’s playmaking may still be the ultimate goal for the Islanders. They started to find out on Sunday night.
Coach Barry Trotz has been reluctant to use the two offensive-minded players together on a line, often citing Barzal’s unique free-wheeling skating style and penchant for keeping the puck on his stick as a potentially difficult adjustment for Wahlstrom. There are defensive concerns as well in hesitating to expose Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, to too many matchups against the opposition’s best players.
But circumstances conspired to have Trotz start the two together on a line for the first time this season as the Islanders concluded a six-game homestand against the Ducks at UBS Arena.
Barzal, in his second game back after missing six with a lower-body injury, normally centers the top line. But has been reassigned, for now, to a third trio with Brock Nelson clicking so well with captain Anders Lee and Anthony Beauvillier and Jean-Gabriel Pageau doing likewise with Josh Bailey and Kyle Palmieri.
Wahlstrom, a third-line fixture for most of the season, was back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for Friday night’s 5-2 win over the Jets, when Barzal skated with Zach Parise and Kieffer Bellows.
Hence, what Trotz still considers an experiment.
"I can’t even answer that," Trotz said before the game when asked if he thought Wahlstrom would be able to mesh with Barzal. "That’s why I’m doing it. I have an idea. I think Barzy’s ready for playing those minutes. He’s got a guy who can really shoot the puck in Wahlly. He’s had that with Kieffer. They both do that. Zach’s been a really good complement with Barzy all year when he’s played with him.
"So, hoping it works. Just like anything, just by putting it on paper doesn’t make it work. We’ll see if Wahlly’s ready for that. If Barzy’s ready. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll just move on."
Per MoneyPuck.com, Wahlstrom had been on the ice with Barzal, along with Lee, for a total of 14 minutes over 20 games entering Sunday, meaning an odd shift or during delayed line changes. That trio has not produced a goal, nor has it been on the ice for a goal against.
Barzal and Wahlstrom have frequently played together on the power play.
But five-on-five assignments, with more defensive responsibility, are different. And the subtleties of developing chemistry are hard to replicate in practice.
"The more people play together, the more they’re going to get used to the nuances of playing with people," Trotz said. "So we’ll see. We’ll see. I’ve put it on paper, Wahlly has been there many times and we’ll see."
Trotz has often preached patience with Wahlstrom’s development. The organization knows the promise in his game.
His teammates have seen it, too.
"He’s so talented," said Pageau, who frequently centers Wahlstrom on the third line. "I think I’ve seen a lot of his compete level go higher. Day in and day out, you just see him come in and compete. That’s big. To be able to compete every day, you just improve on your game. We all know what he can do with the puck and how he can shoot it but I think all of his detail in his defensive game have really grown."
Wahlstrom entered Sunday with 11 goals and 10 assists in 49 games, leaving him one short of matching a career high for goals and equaling his career high for points. Five of his goals have come on the power play.