The New York Islanders enter the 2021-22 NHL season hoping to improve upon consecutive semifinal appearances, and with the talented roster they possess, win the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 1982-83 season. The roster is headlined by young, talented skaters like Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier, but it’s the skaters aged 22-years-old and younger that will be crucial to the team’s success next season. Additionally, young skaters like Oliver Wahlstrom on the forwards unit and Noah Dobson on the defense play necessary positions on the backend of their respective units, helping the team remain competitive for the upcoming season and for years to follow.
The 2020-21 NHL season was Noah Dobson‘s first full season, and he entered the defensive unit hoping to compensate for the loss of defenseman Devon Toews, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2020 offseason.
Dobson not only exceeded expectations, but emerged as a great skating defenseman, allowing his speed to create turnovers and subsequently set up the offense. Paired with 38-year-old Andy Greene on the third unit, the young defenseman added 2.0 defensive point shares and 59 blocked shots on the defensive end of the ice. Furthermore, on the offensive end of the ice, the Islanders young defenseman also contributed three goals and 14 points, all of which in 46 regular-season games played.
The Islanders also saw Dobson step up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 22-year-old defenseman added seven assists, leading the defensive unit while taking on a larger role on the penalty kill, as head coach Barry Trotz would mix up the defensive pairings to take advantage of the versatility of the unit as a whole.
For the upcoming season, Dobson will need to take on a larger role in the defensive unit, with the Islanders trading Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings in the offseason. Without Leddy, the Islanders will need a defenseman to play in the top two pairings and contribute on the offensive end of the ice, while also continuing to impact the defense. If Dobson continues to progress into one of the team’s best two-way defensemen, the Islanders will continue to possess one of the best defenses in the NHL. It’s a deep and talented unit, led by the top pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, but opposing offenses may also struggle to find scoring opportunities against the later pairings. As a result, the 22-year-old defensemen arguably plays the most consequential role in the team’s success next season among the young skaters, filling a major void in the roster while also helping put the unit over the top.
Playing in 44 regular-season games last season, Oliver Wahlstrom showed flashes of what he could provide to the offense, not just for the upcoming season, but for years to come. The young forward scored 12 goals with 21 points, and was unstoppable for a seven-game stretch when he scored five goals and distributed two assists. Wahlstrom gave the Islanders forward unit speed on the wings and was particularly accurate as a shooter in the offensive zone, picking apart opposing goaltenders with a 12.8 shooting percentage.
Wahlstrom doesn’t play a major role in the forwards unit at the moment, averaging only 12:23 time on ice, but as the season starts, the Islanders should give the 21-year-old forward more ice time and play him on one of the top shifts. Entering the 2021-22 NHL season, the Islanders need a forward who can step up and play on the top line with Barzal and captain Anders Lee, since Jordan Eberle is no longer on the team after being selected by the Seattle Kraken. Likewise, the team needs a scorer on the backend to help capitalize Brock Nelson or Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s play-making ability. Wahlstrom continuing to improve will not only help fill one of those needs but potentially put the team over the top this season and turn the offense into one of the best in the league.
Other Possible Breakout Stars
The two young skaters that have already established themselves on the Islanders roster have been Dobson and Wahlstrom respectively. However, the Islanders also have plenty of young prospects that like Wahlstrom last season, can join the team a few weeks or even months into the 2021-22 NHL season to help put a shift or the entire roster over the top. One of the top prospects is defenseman Robin Salo, who plays the left side of the defense which is the same position as the recently traded Leddy and if he’s ready for the upcoming season, can instantly impact the roster. Likewise, while 2021 second-round entry draft selection Aatu Raty is unlikely to play for the team this season, his talent at the center position is unquestioned and Raty can add depth to the offense even in the back half of this season.
Ultimately, the team needs some of the younger players to step up this season with many of the impact players on the roster entering their prime or the twilight of their careers. The Islanders have one of the best teams in the NHL but the energy provided by the younger skaters can help the team get over the hump and win the Stanley Cup.
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.