The Islanders showed a rare flash of offensive competence in their victory over the Ottawa Senators, posting five goals for the first time since they put up six in Montreal against the Canadiens back on Nov. 4.
That was over a month ago, sandwiching a miserable stretch of play that saw the Islanders score just 15 goals during an 11-game losing streak (1.36 goals per game).
For a team starving for goals, it appeared — at least on the surface — that an all-too logical option for head coach Barry Trotz to explore would be to place young sharpshooter Oliver Wahlstrom alongside Mathew Barzal on the Islanders’ first line.
Wahlstrom is the closest thing the Islanders have to a sniper with one of the most wicked wrist shots in all of hockey. At just 21 years old, his eight goals rank second on the team, fueled by a team-leading four power-play tallies.
Putting that kind of shot next to the playmaking capabilities of the dynamic Barzal offers the promise of a formidable duo on the first line rounded out by the bruising Anders Lee to provide a dependable net-front presence.
But Wahlstrom hasn’t seen much time with Barzal this season. A little over 13% of his 5-on-5 minutes have come alongside Barzal (h/t Dobber Sports) as the right-winger has spent the lion’s share of his even-strength time working on the Islanders’ third line with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zach Parise.
It’s all about the details and predictability for Trotz, not just scoring goals.
“If you’re playing with Pageau, it’s probably pretty easy to pay with him because he’s predictable,” Trotz said. “Playing with Barzal is not as predictable. That’s where moving a guy like Wahlstrom up sometimes can hinder him a little bit because you’re playing with a little bit of a wild card.”
Trotz certainly has a valid point there. Pageau is more of a direct north-to-south type of player, which affords Wahlstrom a better chance of predicting where the play is going and how he can get to the most advantageous areas on both sides of the ice.
Barzal’s game features much more panache punctuated by long, winding spells of possession that has the capability of throwing off linemates — especially those not as familiar with playing alongside him — as much as the opposing defense.
“He’s going to continue to evolve his game by learning to play with different sets of guys so that he’s not just ‘I’m a shooter, get me a puck and I’m going to score,'” Trotz said. “There’s a lot more to that game than that one moment.
“He feels he’s a goal scorer and when he’s not scoring, that’s all he can think about.”
The prerequisite for most players who stick around within Trotz’s lineup is that they’re able to consistently play a full 200-foot game with laser-focused attention to detail. The last month of losing is a clear example of how things can go wrong when that’s not the case.
Should Wahlstrom continue trending in the right direction — his mere presence as a 21-year-old in a lineup that is difficult to crack as a youngster indicates just that — it’s only a matter of time before the hopes of countless Islanders fans are fulfilled and he’s on the first line alongside Barzal.
“The time for that will come, but it has to be the right time,” Trotz teased. “Because if it’s not, it throws everyone for a loop. It may look sexy for the analytics world or your fantasy hockey team, but it always doesn’t apply to the real world.
“Do I want him to be a top-line winger? Yes. And hopefully, he’ll get there.”