At just 22 years old, it's hard to proclaim 2022-23 a make-or-break year for the New York Islanders' Oliver Wahlstrom. The 2018 Islanders first-round pick has played 126 games across three seasons with mixed results. Time is still on his side, but progress is necessary for patience at the NHL level.
The skill is there. The shot is definitely there. What was missing last season was earning Barry Trotz's trust to be a dependable two-way hockey player that can play without the puck and be reliable in the defensive zone. Without it, you play 12:04 a game. Without it, you don't play on the power-play. Without it, you aren't on the ice on a 6-on-5 or 3-on-3 overtime.
A critical year for the New York Islanders Oliver Wahlstrom in 2022-23
Despite the narrative that Trotz was holding back his young forward, there's no question he was trying to get through to him. The Islanders' former coach invested time in Wahlstrom. The 'tough love' measures didn't work, but it wasn't due to a lack of effort or attention. “I need tough love sometimes, the former 11th overall pick said in May. "It’s part of the game; it’s part of the business. It was just ups and downs for me, obviously, this year. I love the game, and I take information in and try to use that.”
"It’s a process with Wally and it’s a process with Bellows where it’s easy, everybody analytically and everybody who says, ‘Oh just put the kid in, he’ll be fine.’ It doesn’t work that way. You get confidence by earning it a little bit. If it comes easy for you and you run into a dry spell or a hard spell, you don’t know where to go. But if you make it a little bit hard and understand that everything is critical, then you understand that you start building your game and the momentum and all that comes."- Former HC Barry Trotz
Trotz knew the Islanders needed Wahlstrom to be better offensively and he turned to his familiar methods to make it happen. It just didn't work this time and Trotz wasn't given the opportunity to get another crack at unleashing Wahlstrom's potential. Going into this season, the expectation is that the Islanders 'new voice' Lane Lambert will afford Wahlstrom a fresh start with a new coaching staff.
It might have been information overload for Wahlstrom last season. At this level, you can't play the game thinking about what you should do, it has to be instinctive and it appeared that at some point of last season, Wahlstrom lost the ability to just play his game.
After the season, GM Lou Lamoriello expressed disappointment in his forward group. Much of that was directed at veterans that performed below that track record, but Wahlstrom's season fits into that categorization as well. After 12 goals in 44 games in 2021, he finished last season with 13, a new career-high, but only three goals came in the final 38 games. Over the last 10 games, he played under 10:00 TOI five times.
Yes, the Islanders need rebound seasons from their veterans, but even if they get that, they'll still need their few younger players to reach the next level of their game. It happened last season on the back end with Noah Dobson, the Islanders need Wahlstrom to do the same this year.