NHL on NBC: Wahlstrom could give Islanders another much-needed weapon

NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. Islanders-Sabres stream coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Different people will have different reactions when they scroll the Islanders’ roster, or their Cap Friendly page. Your mileage will probably vary regarding how shrewd it seems to have so much term locked up in key players on the older side, such as Anders Lee (30), Brock Nelson (29), Jordan Eberle (30), and Josh Bailey (31).

Even bold semi-new acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau is no spring chicken at 28 (signed through 2025-26, like Lee).

Again, reactions will vary to such a structure. Plenty of people will — reasonably — point out that plenty of teams invest in proven veterans.

Either way, most would also agree that, aside from Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier, the Islanders aren’t exactly swimming in players who are just starting to peak. With that in mind, the Islanders must be absolutely delighted to see a recent surge from 20-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom, the 11th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

Then again, when Oliver Wahlstrom can do something like this as a kid, maybe we should have seen this coming?

All kidding aside, it hasn’t been a totally smooth ride for Wahlstrom. As this great article from Arthur Staple of The Athletic (sub required) points out, Wahlstrom’s stumbled here and there in his development. As modest as his drop-off was during that 2018 NHL Draft, Staple points to scouts who had some concerns about his fitness.

With just 25 NHL games to his name (including 16 this season), it’s far too early to claim that Wahlstrom has arrived for the Islanders. Considering his coach is Barry Trotz, a return to the doghouse may be inevitable.

But don’t blame the Islanders for being excited, especially for a farm system that isn’t necessarily teeming with highly-touted prospects.

Islanders seem excited about Wahlstrom’s progress

In 2019-20, Oliver Wahlstrom failed to score a single point in nine games with the Islanders. During his time at other levels, he didn’t light scoreboards on fire, either.

So, again, a recent flourish is welcomed. Overall this season, Wahlstrom scored four goals and four assists for eight points in 16 games. It’s a recent stretch that’s especially promising, however.

Heading into Thursday’s eventual Islanders win against the Sabres, Wahlstrom scored six points (3G, 3A) in a five-game point streak. While that run ended on Thursday, Wahlstrom logged 16:15 time on ice, easily the largest workload of his NHL career.

Since he finally started cracking the Islanders lineup, Wahlstrom’s spent almost all of his ice time with J-G Pageau. Trotz putting Wahlstrom with Pageau, a two-way center, is quite the showing of confidence. And it sounds like this approach is helping Wahlstrom’s all-around game to blossom.

“I’ve just kind of fallen in love with the details in my game,” Wahlstrom said on Tuesday, via Staple. “It’s bringing more enjoyment to my game. I’m thinking less about production, just focusing on the details.”

Trotz called such statements “music to his ears.” It’s all clearly what the Islanders wanted to hear from Wahlstrom.

There might be bumps in the road

Overall, Wahlstrom’s development is very promising for the Islanders. (You can say similar things about Noah Dobson, whom the Islanders drafted one pick later than Wahlstrom in 2018.)

But, again, it wouldn’t be shocking if his relationship ebbs and flows with Trotz.

While the sample sizes are very small, it’s interesting that certain underlying stats don’t look that different from this season to the last.

Consider Wahlstrom’s RAPM stats, via Evolving Hockey, from 2019-20:

Oliver Wahlstrom RAPM Evolving Hockey 2019-20
via Evolving Hockey

And then ponder his fairly similar underlying stats from this season:

Oliver Wahlstrom RAPM Evolving Hockey 2020-21
via Evolving Hockey

Don’t take this as too heavy of a wet blanket.

It might point to the possibility that even a defense-obsessed coach like Barry Trotz can still get lured in by a scoring tear. If (when?) Wahlstrom hits a cold streak, might Trotz cool on him a bit?

(The young forward’s ice time has generally still been pretty modest.)

That’s a worry for another day. And, really, if Wahlstrom can keep Trotz happy enough, he could provide this sort of game-breaking ability for the Islanders:

And, really, can you blame Trotz for evoking Alex Ovechkin‘s name after seeing a goal like this?

During the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Islanders were a scary opponent. Just imagine if Wahlstrom can ease some of the scoring burden Mathew Barzal carries, and the Islanders maintain their skin-tight system of defense?

That would be music to more than just Barry Trotz’s ears.

NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America, presented by Discover®this Sunday with an NHL quadrupleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S. The day is a highlight of NBC Sports’ NHL coverage in March, which includes 30 games over 30 nights.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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