Oliver Wahlstrom had not done much to prove himself when ex-head coach Lane Lambert was at the helm of the New York Islanders’ ship.
Now with Patrick Roy in charge, there’s at least one more opportunity to cement himself with the franchise that has been waiting for his breakout since calling him up five seasons ago.
Wahlstrom drew into the Islanders’ lineup for their final game before the All-Star break, a 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night at UBS Arena. While he was benched for 13 minutes in the second period, he got back on the ice late in the second period with New York trailing 1-0, tied the puck up on a face-off in the Panthers zone and managed to muscle it forward to Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who fed Simon Holmstrom for the tying goal.
The assist was the focal point of a night that also featured a pair of hits with that plus-1 rating and the praise of his new head coach.
“He played a very good game,” Roy said. “That’s what I said to him [Saturday] morning when I met with him… I asked him if he was comfortable. This is also me learning about him and trusting him. It’s playoff hockey for our team so sometimes, as a coach, you just want to see a little more.
“But I thought he did a very good job and he played a pretty good game. It’s never easy when you haven’t played in a long period of time but I thought he responded pretty well.”
Wahlstrom had recorded just two goals and three assists in 23 previous games this season, falling out of favor with Lambert, who chose the likes of Hudson Fasching or Julien Gauthier to slot into the lineup.
But the Islanders have some climbing to do up the standings to cement their pace as a legitimate playoff contender and with Roy providing a clean slate — Matt Martin likened this to “training camp all over again” — Wahlstrom’s intangibles are at least going to get him a look.
He has shown off his plus shot and an ability to handle the puck well enough, but it’s the rest of his game that has to fit into Roy’s new, aggressive style. That includes staying organized defensively and sparking the transition game rather than adding to the turnover count.
“I’ve seen a lot of good practice players. Now I want to see the player on the ice,” Roy said. “I know he has beautiful hands, he makes a move, I’ve seen everything. Now I want to see it in a game. The game is not just about skills. There are players that are high-skill guys but they just can’t play in the structure. Now, unfortunately, you have to be a good mix — a guy that needs to perform in the structure but also capable of doing it individually.
“The game is so fast… everybody studies everybody… If a player can’t play within your structure, it makes it tough. It makes it very tough.”