A spot on the right wing of the New York Islanders third line is apparently up for grabs, at least according to general manager Lou Lamoriello.
“It’s going to be a competition between two or three players in that position,” he said on Monday, indicating that Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, and — when Cal Clutterbuck returns to the Islanders’ lineup — Nikita Soshnikov will battle for playing time.
“I know that me and [Wahlstrom] have always been battling for spots,” Bellows told amNewYork on Tuesday. “[Soshnikov] is a great player, really fast, really skilled…Wally, Sosh, and I have that friendly competitive battle that push us to be better every single game. That won’t just help us but help the team, in the long run, trying to elevate us to the playoffs.”
Wahlstrom, who is battling an upper-body injury but returned to practice on Monday, is considered on the outside as the favorite to take control of that spot. The 22-year-old played in 73 games last season with 13 goals and with his lethal shot is expected to get another opportunity to put together a breakout campaign.
He’s been given a longer look than Bellows, who has played in a combined 67 games over the last three seasons after he was drafted 19th overall in 2016. The 24-year-old had made it his mission to crack the opening night roster at the beginning of camp, which he did successfully. Now he’s looking to take that next step.
“I’m confident in my game that I can go out there and play the full 82-game schedule,” he said. “It’s obviously nice still being here but I know there’s still a lot of work ahead. Just because you’re a part of the 23-man roster doesn’t mean you’ll be playing every single game.
“So I want to go out there and be in that first-game lineup and I just don’t want to do that. I want to be on the 82-game lineup and put the work in that I have during the preseason, that style that I played, that power forward — I want to play that style.”
Bellows and Wahlstrom have been good friends from even before their Islanders days as they worked their way through the ranks of the United States junior team — so such a rivalry is one steeped in mutual respect.
“Him and I are similar players where we like to shoot the puck,” Bellows said. “We’re always talking to each other before and after practice, what we want to work on shooting-wise, what we saw in the NHL the night before, how that guy shot the way he did. We work on that together. We’re friends. We compete together and I think that’s like everyone on the team. We all want to push each other and get better.”
Soshnikov provides another dimension to the competition as a fast-skating, quick-handed option that also carries a lethal shot but is also capable of playing more traditional bottom-six roles such as working on the penalty kill. The 28-year-old worked with Lamoriello with the Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to play a few years in Russia.
Now back in the NHL, he’s impressed the Islanders enough to get the call for the big club where he could very well start on the fourth line next to Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas with Clutterbuck out.
“It is a really good problem quote-unquote to have,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “I don’t see it as a problem at all. Competition from within is great. We stressed that, we wanted that at the start of camp, and we’ve gotten that. It just makes everyone better.”