The sting of knowing how close the Islanders were to playing for the Stanley Cup won’t go away. The sting of having a healthy Oliver Wahlstrom and knowing the possible effect he could have had as the team’s run got deeper will last as well.
Wahlstrom, the team’s 21-year-old sniper, didn’t appear for the Isles in the final two rounds after a strong start to the playoffs. Instead, he spent most of the postseason in the press box watching after getting hurt in the third period of Game 5 against Pittsburgh. Wahlstrom had collided awkwardly with the Pens’ Mike Matheson in the corner and suffered a lower-body injury.
“Obviously, it’s really tough to get injured,” Wahlstrom said to the media during exit interviews. “You want to play with all your brothers and it was tough but at the same time it was a good learning experience to go through that. And mentally, to work on my mind a little bit, so it was really tough.”
That narrative of Wahlstrom’s absence didn’t seem to affect head coach Barry Trotz who said he had “no regrets” about keeping the rookie forward out. Even as Wahlstrom was considered fully healthy by the time the Tampa series started, Trotz decided to stick with veteran acquisition Travis Zajac, who did a commendable job in his place.
Now while Trotz said his two-cents, there’s no question Wahlstrom’s absence was felt on a number of important fronts. The obvious being the Islanders’ offense and their power play, both of which could have used the rookie’s shot and energy. The Isles only score 11 goals in the entire series and went a dismal 1-for-17 with the man advantage.
Wahlstrom can say that sitting out was a good learning experience, and the Islanders and their fans can keep thinking “what if?”. But with the shift towards next season in full gear, Wahlstrom has the chance to be an even bigger presence.
Top shelf! pic.twitter.com/h6bRcZC0Uw
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) March 3, 2021
Next year will technically be year three for him — Wahlstrom did play over 40 games this year and handful the previous season — and his role in the offense is most likely to expand. Wahlstrom is one of the youngest players/forwards of an Islanders attack that’s not getting any younger with a lot of their core forwards in their late 20s, early 30s. The potential loss of a Jordan Eberle in the expansion draft could also open up a big hole in the top-six.
Wahlstrom did become a lot more confident with and without the puck this past season. That can help with gaining Trotz’s trust. But it’s that scoring prowess which is more crucial.
The Isles haven’t had a true sniper for years. Wahlstrom changed that narrative this year and it should be a major sticking point when training camp begins. At the moment, he is the team’s bonafide sharpshooter. No one has the shot or hands he does, which was clear from the majority of the 12 goals Wahlstrom tallied during the regular season.
Then there’s dynamic he brings to the Islanders’ power play.
There was a point during the season when the team’s power play turned the corner, and it came from Wahlstrom becoming the go-to guy. Once the opposition figured out how to defend him — and lost Anders Lee as a net-front presence — the Islanders lost that mojo. But it was easy to tell you how much just having Wahlstrom as a threat changed the entire feel when the Isles were man-up.
The expectations for the Islanders and Wahlstrom going into next season will be high. And rightfully so. Both have the chance to do big things.