The New York Islanders enter next season with a handful of young players that they hope can step up and provide a spark to an otherwise veteran-heavy roster. Furthermore, with the team looking to compete for the Stanley Cup, a breakout player can determine this rosters ceiling and, most importantly, put the roster over the top.
One of the x-factors for the Islanders is Oliver Wahlstrom, who, in the past two seasons, has shown flashes of his potential, but he has yet to establish himself as a reliable top-six forward. A big year from the young right winger can elevate the forward unit and will lead to a successful season for the team altogether.
The problem early on in the 22-year-old forward’s career is that he is often dependent on the line he plays on. Notably, Wahlstrom relies on a center that can open up the ice in the offensive zone and allow him to find open shots from the wing. As a result, one of the issues the Islanders must address heading into the season is their line combinations, but particularly for their young forward that’s hoping to have a breakout season.
Mathew Barzal Line
Wahlstrom played the majority of last season on the Mathew Barzal-led line, albeit in a limited role. His 12:04 ice time was one of the issues of head coach Barry Trotz’s system, which favored veteran presence in the lineup and, after a disappointing season, resulted in a head coaching change. Barzal and Wahlstrom appear like the ideal duo on a top line, but last season, the two forwards struggled together, failing to complement their skill sets.
Despite last season’s struggles, the two young forwards are still the most likely to play on the same shift in the upcoming season. Barzal is the best skater on the team and opens up the ice for the rest of the players in the offensive zone, and a lot of the Islanders’ success altogether hinges on him bouncing back. For Wahlstrom, in particular, his ability to play on the rush as a great skater and a great shot on the wing can make him a top goal scorer on the team if he plays on the same shift.
Furthermore, the Barzal-Wahlstrom combination can only be successful with the ideal left winger playing on their shift. Unfortunately, Kyle Palmieri has overlapping attributes and plays the same position as Wahlstrom, while Zach Parise, who had his moments last season, is past his prime at 38 years old. The Islanders have plenty of depth on the forward unit, but ultimately, they will have to find the right forward to play alongside their two young talented skaters to make the shift thrive next season.
Brock Nelson Line
It would be interesting to see Wahlstrom on the same line as Brock Nelson, largely because it would move Anthony Beauvillier from that shift. Beauvillier is one of the Islanders on the trade block this offseason and could be moved to open up salary cap space or to acquire a star player. Likewise, the 25-year-old forward could move to another shift and, in a new role, help out the offense. However, if the Islanders move Wahlstrom to the Nelson-led line, it would be a high-risk move but one that could provide the team with a remarkable scoring line.
Wahlstrom’s skill set would clash with both Nelson and Anders Lee, as all three skaters look to find open shots and the back of the net in the offensive zone. The line combination wouldn’t sound optimal at first but could pay off considering Nelson’s overall playmaking ability. The veteran center can both find the back of the net and find open skaters in the offensive zone to provide Wahlstrom with plenty of open shots, while Lee continues to finish scoring chances from the slot.
The question for the Islanders is would Wahlstrom interrupt the chemistry of the team’s best shift from last season? Nelson and Lee scored a combined 65 goals and formed a strong duo in both the neutral zone and the offensive zone, especially as the season progressed as Lee’s skating improved after tearing his ACL in the 2020-21 season. Wahlstrom isn’t a puck handler or a distributor and could set the line back if asked to be either. Likely, Beauvillier will instead be the wing forward on the Nelson-led shift, but if the offense struggles early on in the season, a line change will be a viable option for the forward unit.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau Line
Playing alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau might not be the best for Wahlstrom in terms of his offensive production. However, it might be the best for the forward unit as a whole, with Pageau’s style of play helping the rest of his shift. The later line center is one of the best defensive forwards on the roster with great control of the middle of the ice and can cover up Wahlstrom’s deficiencies and inexperience defensively. Furthermore, as the primary puck-handler on his shift, the 29-year-old allows the wing skaters to be shooters on the outside of the offensive zone.
While Pageau isn’t the same playmaker as Barzal or Nelson and likewise, he can oftentimes slow down the game. Both attributes limit Wahlstrom and his ceiling, but the overall production could still make for a good fit with the two on the same line. Moreover, Wahlstrom playing in the bottom-six with Pageau could provide depth to the offense and set the Islanders up best for a strong season.
Other Line Options For Wahlstrom
If the Islanders sign Nazem Kadri, he would be an intriguing option for Wahlstrom. Kadri is one of the more talented forwards that is available in free agency and would center a top line for the team, creating scoring chances for the rest of his shift. The question would be if Wahlstrom’s abilities conflict with the veteran center, who would also subsequently move Barzal or Nelson to the wing, forcing the team to further adjust the forward lines.
Lane Lambert has a lot to address in his first season as the head coach of the Islanders. One of the primary obstacles that hindered the team last season was the line combinations, as the offense struggled and scored only 2.79 goals per game. Nelson and Lee stepped up, but the offense otherwise was a liability, and Wahlstrom is one of the many players that need to find the right shift and role to help the team bounce back next season.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.