The NHL season is around the corner with opening night a month away. Recently, the New York Islanders writers at The Hockey Writers (THW) published the team’s 2023-24 lineup projections which can be found here. There were a lot of similarities with what the Islanders roster will look like but a few skaters emerged as wild cards.
One of the recurring themes in the projections was the question of where Oliver Wahlstrom will play. He’s one of the biggest X factors heading into the season as he’s a promising young forward who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, betting on himself to have a breakout season.
There’s an argument that can be made that Wahlstrom should play on a top-six line and take on a bigger role in the forward unit. At the same time, keeping him on the third line might be the best option for the Islanders, especially with the top six all but set. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how head coach Lane Lambert decides to play his young skater on the wing as he can take the offense to another level.
The Argument For Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s Line
The Jean-Gabriel Pageau-led line seems like the most realistic for Wahlstrom this season. It decreases his role but the primary reason to play him here is that the top-six already has a strong chemistry that was formed last season. Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal lead the top line while Anders Lee rounds it out. Brock Nelson leads the second line while Pierre Engvall and Kyle Palmieri play on his wings. This leaves Wahlstrom, who is the next best wing skater to play on the Pageau line.
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Wahstrom has only averaged 12:04 ice time in his career. While he can play more in the forward unit, a decreased role is the most realistic option for a forward who still has yet to make his mark in the offense. In four seasons, he’s only played 161 games and scored only 32 goals and 29 assists with last season being a particularly small sample size as he suffered a season-ending injury after only 35 games. He has the skills to become an elite scorer but until he proves he can consistently produce at a top-six level, it’s unlikely he’ll be given that opportunity. The plus side to Wahlstrom remaining on the Pageau line is that it rounds out the forward unit as the Islanders will have two potent lines and a dynamic shooter on their third line to provide the goal-scoring.
The problem with Wahlstrom playing on this line is that it doesn’t unlock his best skills. Pageau is a reliable passer, distributing 27 assists last season and 157 in his career, but his primary strength is as a puck handler which can hurt a skater like Wahlstrom, who needs someone who can quickly find him in the offensive zone. While Pageau will open up the ice and provide shots for his linemates, he’ll struggle to pass the puck to them the way the other centers on the team do. The combination might be the one the Islanders go with but it might not be the best one available and it will hinder their young forward’s potential.
The Argument For Bo Horvat’s Line
Playing Wahlstrom on the top line is a move that many fans would hope to see but the question is how it would look. With Horvat in the middle, the Islanders already have a great scorer, specifically, an elite shooter who can find open looks on the net. He struggled last season after he was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks but is expected to bounce back and emerge as the team’s top goalscorer.
Barzal meanwhile is the playmaker on the line who draws opponents towards him and allows his linemates to find open shots on the net. His speed and passing ability make him an ideal skater to pair with Wahlstrom and with Horvat being a threat in the center of the offensive zone, the combination on the top line could be tough to stop.
Wahlstrom without question would benefit from Barzal and Horvat. However, the question is if the Islanders’ offense would be better off with him playing in that role instead of Lee, who plays more of a finishing role. Both skaters have a scorer’s mentality but they play different styles. Wahlstrom seems like the better skater as he is more of a playmaker than the Islanders’ captain. However, the top line needs a finisher, a skater who can consistently find the back of the net. Lee has scored 28 goals in each of the past two seasons and his proven track record makes him the safer bet among the two.
This can be the season Wahlstrom proves that he can be a consistent 20-goal scorer. However, until he proves he can do so, he won’t play a top-line role. Instead, there’s a possibility he plays alongside the most well-rounded forward on the Islanders.
The Argument For Brock Nelson’s Line
The Nelson-led line might not come to mind with Wahlstrom but it could be the ideal one for him and the Islanders’ forward unit as a whole. Nelson has been the team’s best forward in recent seasons, scoring 37 goals in 2021-22 and 36 goals and 39 assists last season to lead all skaters in points. He’s not only the most productive on the ice but a center who can both create scoring chances and find the back of the net with a quick shot.
Wahlstrom will receive a plethora of open shots on the wing playing alongside Nelson. Similarly, he could find the veteran center open in the offensive zone and create offense to round out the young skater’s game. Nelson makes the skaters around him better and this combination can also set up the Islanders’ offense for a big season as well.
The downside to Wahlstrom playing on the Nelson line is that it would force Engvall and Palmieri to be split up. Engvall was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of the 2023 Trade Deadline and immediately formed a strong connection in the top-six alongside Palmieri. The two shooters not only provided each other with open looks on the net but were able to pick apart opposing goaltenders to improve the offense in the second half of the season. This connection will be the biggest obstacle preventing Wahlstrom from playing on the Nelson line but if he plays at a high level, he can take over for one of the veteran skaters on the wing and never look back.
Other Roles Wahlstrom Will Look To Play
The big one to watch is how he is integrated into the power play. The unit was awful last season, scoring on only 15.77 percent of opportunities and the Islanders were a mess on the man advantage, playing without direction or a method to find the back of the net. Wahlstrom can improve the power play by finding open shots by the faceoff circles and taking advantage. More importantly, he can become a playmaker on the unit with the open ice and find skaters near the net with centering and cross-ice passes.
Wahlstrom would likely start out on the second power-play unit and play one of the wing positions. However, if he starts to make his mark, he could be promoted to the top unit and help turn the Islanders’ power play into one of the better ones in the NHL. He only has 10 goals in his career on the power play but this could be the season where his primary source of goalscoring comes on the man advantage, especially if he makes the most of the open looks on the net.
Another important role Wahlstrom might play is the speed game. Specifically, when the Islanders face a fast-paced opponent like the New Jersey Devils, he will find a lot of ice time as a skater who can keep up with the opposition. The league as a whole is trending towards a faster, more skilled, and more offensive-minded one and a lot of the Islanders’ competition will try to overwhelm them with their speed. It makes Wahlstrom a pivotal player as he is a younger skater who has the speed to go toe to toe with anyone.
Wahlstrom is entering a make-or-break season and will be watched closely by both the coaching staff and the front office. A big season can ensure that he is a key part of the Islanders’ forward unit for the long term and integral to keeping the team competitive.