Islanders’ Wahlstrom Deserves Top-6 Minutes

The silent summer of Lou Lamoriello continues, and we still don’t have clarity as to who some of the returnees or new additions to the New York Islanders might be, despite what the tea leaves are indicating, and Adam Pelech aside.

That being said, we have an idea that Casey Cizikas, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac are returning to the Island, and that Ilya Sorokin and Anthony Beauvillier’s deals have been settled. “Depth forwards Michael Dal Colle and Anatolii Golyshev are believed to have signed deals,” Arthur Staple of The Athletic also added. (from, ‘What are the Islanders doing? Clues about the Isles’ defense options, forward logjam and more,’ The Athletic, 08/03/21) When we will know the terms and conditions of said deals — your guess is as good as mine.

Looking at the forward group with those names in mind — including Zach Parise in the mix as he’s believed to be signed via unrestricted free agency — it’s pretty crowded. There’s still some speculation that Lamoriello could be in the midst of making a deal as Vladamir Tarasenko’s name is still attached to Long Island, but we just don’t know if that will come to fruition.

With Jordan Eberle now a member of the Seattle Kraken, there’s a spot up for grabs on the first line. It’s easy to think that Palmieri would assume the role of first-line duties, but there’s also the possibility that it goes to a younger forward who has shown he knows how to score at the NHL level, and it could even be an upgrade.

Oliver Goal-strom

Oliver Wahlstrom skated in 44 of 56 contests during the 2020-21 NHL season. Over that span, he scored 12 goals, 21 points on a line centered by J.G. Pageau, and a left-wing spot that rotated between Palmieri, Dal Colle, Leo Komarov, and Zajac. Wahlstrom also saw time on the Islanders’ second power-play unit, potting four goals on a few blasts from “Ovechkin’s office.”

His 12 goals in 44 games last season translate to roughly 22 goals in 82 games, with an average of 12:23 of time on ice. Considering an 82-game span for all Islanders forwards, Wahlstrom ranked fourth-best in goals scored behind only Brock Nelson (26), Mathew Barzal (25), and Eberle (24). His 12.77 shooting percentage (SH%) was fourth-best among forwards who skated in 40 or more games for the Islanders in the 2020-21 season. With an increased workload in the form of a promotion to Barzl’s right wing, it’s only safe to assume those totals would go up, somewhere near the 30-goal mark.

If raw stats aren’t your fancy, take a look at Wahlstrom’s Corsi for percentage (CF%). The young sniper accrued a 55.13 CF%, third-best among forwards who skated in the same games increment prior, behind only Eberle and Barzal. Only three forwards on the Islanders had an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) over 60 percent (again, in 40 or more games played). Eberle led the Islanders with 61.49 xGF%, then Barzal with 61.42 xGF%, and Wahlstrom with 60.13 xGF%. Wahlstrom also ranked second among forwards in high-danger CF% at 66.10 percent.

Basically, the puck is in the offensive zone for the Islanders more often than not when Wahlstrom is on the ice, and he has a lot to do with it. Additionally, he’s creating plenty of scoring chances, and more high-danger chances than most forwards on the team.

Many have speculated that Barry Trotz won’t insert Wahlstrom in the top six, but that’s ultimately up to Wahlstrom. A strong camp can shoot him up the depth chart, and his style of play fits well with Barzal and Anders Lee. Palmieri never really got his chance to play on the first line in his short tenure last season, so it’s anyone’s spot on the top line. It would be worth the Islanders’ while to give Wahlstrom the shot at top-line minutes and finally establish a true first-line scoring threat. Pageau is a phenomenal player, but he’s no Barzal, and it’s safe to assume with more minutes and more talent around him that Wahlstrom’s scoring would increase.

As for his development, he came along rather quickly when given a chance. “It’s just a mindset,” Wahlstrom said. “I learned quickly that you have to enjoy those small details in your game and not focus on the outcomes — the goals, the points.”

It wasn’t long before Trotz trusted him on the second power-play unit, and he’s proven to make the quick adjustment. Analytically, his numbers suggest he’s one of the Islanders’ best forwards on the ice. It might be easy to say his success comes at the hands of Pageau’s ability to play all styles of the game, but Wahlstrom’s analytics are closer to Barzal’s than they are to Pageau’s. Barzal and Wahlstrom can combine for a lethal duo in the 2021-22 NHL season with Barzal dishing and Wahlstrom sniping. And if that doesn’t work, Lee can just clean up the garbage in front of the net. Sounds like a recipe for success.

With the forward group looking pretty crowded, and a glaring need for a top-four defender after the departure of Nick Leddy, there are plenty of internal options for the Islanders to utilize on the first line next to Barzal and Lee. We’ll get a clearer picture of what that will look like at the start of training camp, but the spot is up for grabs and can be won by a young, motivated, shot-happy Wahlstrom.

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