The New York Islanders have the fundamentals and depth in place for this team to be not only competitive but contenders for the next decade. This quiet offseason, to much of the chagrin to the fanbase, is quiet for a reason. Their farm system. With upcoming unrestricted free agent contracts that expire at this end of this season and poor contracts signed by previous management, the slow play is the smart play.
You can’t expect to pay everyone large amounts of money via trades and free agency and still expect to pay decent to top dollar for your core. That is where the farm comes in. Straight out of the playbook of Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees, Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello is creating a new dynasty here on the Island that will have this core competing well into the future. But these unsung salary cap heroes will only be coming from the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers, so why not get better acquainted with them, shall we?
Otto Koivula is a left winger turned center turned NHL player. Yes he will be with the team this season and yes he will help. Part of the love/hate with him is that as excited as most fans were about the Sound Tigers and the amazing prospects they had, it took one successful NHL season with the new regime for everyone to think there is no talent. That is just not the case. We all love the improved year from Brock Nelson. Well guess what, Koivula’s numbers are better. In his first full season with the Sound Tigers, he had 21 goals and 25 assists. Percentage-wise, that’s about a point every five-to-six periods, which is a little better then Nelson had in the NHL last season. Koivula’s ceiling is about as high as his height (6-foot-4). He’s big and he’s on his way, so get used to him.
Unlike Koivula, left winger Kieffer Bellows did not hit any expectations for the Sound Tigers in his first season. However, the 21-year-old did have a great showing at the World Junior Championships and has given him new confidence that is sure to impress in training camp.
He had a great camp last season and the move to keep him in Bridgeport proved to be the right one. But, despite the lack luster season, he contributed well in the playoffs with three points in five games against a Hershey Bears team that has been running Islanders head coach Barry Trotz’s system for years. Then he went to World Juniors and lit it up with 10 points in seven games. This included nine goals. Say what you want about the tournament this year, as far as I’m concerned, other than Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the talent was pretty even, and for Bellows to produce like that is an important step in his development. He may be up this season for injury relief, but the 2020-21 season he should be on the roster tearing it up.
The 19-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom has one thing and one thing only on his mind: play hockey. He’s dedicated to it. I don’t count college numbers and stats for a reason. It’s college. This isn’t the NBA where the game translates the same. College hockey, in my opinion, is similar to Canadian junior hockey, skill-wise. That’s what makes college hockey or any college sport, for that matter, exciting. Anything can happen and anyone can be the hero because the talent is too widespread and lacking.
Here is the upside on Wahlstrom. He’s 19, has talent and a lot of it. He will be with the Islanders in two years and be a big contributor as the right winger on one of the top two lines. Adding him to the core that will be with the Islanders long term, he is what this team will need in two years: a spark not only on offense but the locker room as well. What you don’t see from him is enough tape and I get that. But you will.
I’m not sure why I didn’t talk about the team’s top defense prospect, Noah Dobson, first. This is a no brainer to end all no brainers. He will be on the Islanders this season. Not out of the gate, but by December. His talent alone puts him past Thomas Hickey and Nick Leddy. On the big team, Devon Toews will take over as the power-play quarterback, which was Leddy’s role. Dobson will be the next guy in line. He’s the guy who will take the reigns from Toews once he is gone considering Toews is already 25 while Dobson is 19.
In 56 games, he posted 52 points while playing for two different junior teams in 2018-19. The move didn’t faze him. He’s ready. Once the dust settles a little on the season, and Hickey or Johnny Boychuk or both go down with injury, Dobson will be up. Then all bets are off. The Islanders will become what they haven’t been for a long time: a fast two-way creative team with a defense-first mentality. That is a recipe for winning. Dobson is that last piece. Hopefully it all comes together.
If you think that this league is going to cool it down on offense in the future you’re mistaken. It’s only going to get faster and more pronounced, the need for offense that is. Defenseman Bode Wilde rounds out my list for that simple reason. Scoring in the NHL is already being generated from the blue line and it’s a trend that will only continue. Therefore it makes sense that Wilde should be a key offensive contributor in the future.
You can have your Sebastian Ahos and your Vande Sompels, but if you are building a winning team and a dynasty, Wilde is the cherry on top. Expect a big season from him in the AHL, and soon he’ll be on the Islanders blue line.
The new management for the Islanders are in it for the long haul. Ask yourself which would you rather have: the possibility of being in the Stanley Cup Final for one year (2019-20), or make deep playoff runs on a consistent basis? The Islanders are building for the latter. Get your seats and settle in. The next few years starts the excitement and, hopefully, domination.