The Islanders’ pipeline when it comes to young players has been scrutinized more often than not over the last few seasons for its supposed lack of depth.
In the grand scheme of things, that may still very well be true given the mystery that so often comes with the development of prospects. But there is no denying that the Islanders have two rookies that are making at least their way into the conversation for the Calder Trophy — the NHL’s award for its Rookie of the Year. After all, Minnesota Wild left-winger Kirill Kaprizov is still deemed the heavy favorite to take home those honors this season.
But right-winger Oliver Wahlstrom and goaltender Ilya Sorokin have come on strong in recent weeks to not only give hockey writers a moment of pause when it comes to deliberations over the Calder Trophy but to ensure the Islanders have cemented younger players to continue building their future upon.
Monday night’s come-from-behind 2-1 overtime victory was made possibly by Sorokin, who put together his best performance yet as a pro with 36 saves to keep the Islanders in contention after a strong two-period push from the Philadelphia Flyers.
It was his eighth-straight victory — the first Islanders rookie netminder ever to do so — as he improved to 8-2-1 with a .922 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average.
Initially used sparingly by head coach Barry Trotz to ensure he could assimilate to the NHL game properly after six seasons in Russia’s top league, Sorokin’s win on Monday night was the first time he started back-to-back games with the Islanders as he continues to establish himself as a star in the making.
He ranks eighth in the NHL in save percentage, fifth in goals-against average, and is tied for seventh with two shutouts.
“Day in, day out, practice day, game day, he’s always trying to do his best,” J-G Pageau said of Sorokin. “He’s super competitive. Even in practice, if he let’s a goal in, he’s not happy… that’s why I think he’s so good. He’s fighting for us and playing for the logo in front and we’re happy to have him here.”
While Sorokin kept the Islanders in it over the first 40 minutes, Wahlstrom knotted things up in the third period when a loose puck in front of goal found his stick, leading to a composed forehand finish amidst the scrum.
“Goalscorers, their eyes light up. They know where the money’s at,” Trotz said of Wahlstrom. “The pot of gold is around the crease when there’s a lot of chaos. Those guys seem to get their radar on it and use those good hands to score goals.”
It was Wahlstrom’s eighth goal of the season in 25 games, but his seventh in 15 games and his fourth in six.
Only Minnesota’s Kaprizov has more rookie goals than Wahlstrom, who at 20 years old has quickly shown the Islanders that he could be the sniping goalscorer they’ve so desperately needed for years.
That’s not an easy thing to do in a system instilled by Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello that likes to take its time with prospects.
“Trust is earned. A lot of credit goes to the player, a lot of credit goes to his linemates like [Pageau],” Trotz previously said of Wahlstrom. “His fitness level has gotten to the NHL level, his skating has improved and he’s moving his feet a lot more, his hands are undeniable at the NHL level and his shot, his defensive part of his game has improved immensely.
“The compete level is good, he uses that strong body and is strong on the puck… He continues to grow and be a young talent that we have to continue to develop. Looking at how he came to camp a few years ago, he’s a different player.”