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A Look at Oliver Wahlstrom’s Rookie Season

The New York Islanders sniper showed plenty of promise in his first NHL season.

NHL: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins
Oliver Wahlstrom ice skating in full hockey gear
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On June 22, 2018, in the moments leading up to the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, American prospect Oliver Wahlstrom was interviewed by the NHL Network. When asked to give a scouting report of himself, Wahlstrom put it simply: “Big body, big shot.”

Later on, after the Islanders drafted Wahlstrom with the 11th overall pick, the NBC broadcast played some of his highlights alongside those of two of his player comparisons: Alex Ovechkin and Mike Bossy.

“The best shot in the draft, a natural goal scorer,” said Bob MacKenzie.

Wahlstrom first appeared with the Islanders during the covid-shortened 2019-20 season, playing nine games. Forget those nine games. Last season (2020-21) was Wahlstrom’s official rookie season at 20 years of age.

So how did the next-gen Alex O’Bossy do?

He did well.

Wahlstrom Stats

Playing just under 12.5 minutes per game — mostly on the third line next to J.G. Pageau — Wahlstrom put up 12 goals and 9 assists in 44 games. That's a 22-goal, 40-point pace over a full season.

For a rookie assigned to a third-line role on a Barry Trotz-coached hockey team, where defensive responsibility takes complete priority over a risk-taking attack, I think that’s pretty good. Prettyyy, prettyyy, pretty good.

A closer look at the numbers on Natural Stat Trick (NST) yields some encouraging signs. On a per-minute basis, no Islander shot the puck more than Wahlstrom, and only Anders Lee scored goals at a higher rate.

Technically, Sebastian Aho did too (one goal in 40 minutes across three games), and while I’m not one to be technical, I am one to bring up Sebastian Aho at every conceivable opportunity.

Wahlstrom was at or near the top of many of the per-60 stats on last year’s team, like scoring chances, shot attempts, penalties drawn, takeaways and more.

Looking league-wide, of the 481 NHL players who logged as many minutes as Wahlstrom last season (544), only 18 shot the puck at a higher rate. Those 18 constitute many of the top goal-scorers in the sport (Matthews, Ovechkin, MacKinnon, Pastrnak, etc.)

If that’s not enough for you, Wahlstrom led the Islanders in Individual Points Percentage (IPP), which NST defines as “the percentage of goals for that player’s team while that player is on the ice that the player earned a point on.”

Translation: no one gets a bigger piece of the action than Wahlstrom. He’s the boss of the Islanders’ organized crime family. If goals are being scored, Wahlstrom wants in on it. Nobody eats if Wahlstrom can’t eat.

His defensive numbers were good, too, but Wahlstrom played over 80% of his even-strength minutes with Pageau. There just aren’t enough non-Pageau minutes to his name yet to isolate his impact on shot/goal-prevention.

As for the physical aspect of his game, the 6’2”, 205-pound Wahlstrom threw hits at a solid rate (eighth on the team in hits/60). More importantly, at no point did he look tentative, intimidated or unwilling to engage in physical confrontation.

If that’s still not enough for you, I really don’t know what to tell you. Your thirst for Oliver Wahlstrom stats exceeds the recommended level and you should seek professional help immediately.

Personal Observations

Wahlstrom’s first NHL goal came in his season debut in Washington. The puck bounced in off of two or three guys before going in (it’s hard to tell). “That’s a Ricochet Rabbit goal,” said Butch Goring, referencing a 1960s cartoon that, at most, one-third of one percent of the viewing audience had heard of.

His second goal, in his 12th game, came in-tight off a rebound against the Bruins. “Finally,” Butchie exclaimed, “a real goal!” Yes, it was a puck he shot directly into the net, but it wasn’t the type of goal we’d all been waiting for. It was an Anders Lee goal, not an Alex Ovechkin goal.

Wahlstrom’s third goal came a couple of games later in Pittsburgh. Does this remind you of anyone?

This is what we’d been waiting three years to see. “That was incredible!” said the Penguins announcer after Wahlstrom fired this laser beam one-timer past a hapless Tristan Jarry. “Wow, what a shot. That was at least 100mph, without question.”

Look at the face Nick Leddy makes to Bailey after the goal was scored:

I thought Wahlstrom had already started to settle in by this point, but once he scored this goal, to my eye, his confidence visibly rose to another level.

Look at him later in that same game, on another power play, calling - repeatedly - for the puck:

I got a kick out of this. Look at this kid in his 20th NHL game trying to boss Josh Bailey around. That’s hilarious. He wants Bailey to give the puck to Leddy so Leddy can set him up for the one-timer. That’s what happened before, let’s do it again, I’m open, hey JOSH I’M OPEN.

Wahlstrom would add several more beautiful snipes as the season progressed. The following video contains all of his goals and other highlights from his rookie season.

I was impressed not just by Wahlstrom’s shot, but his ability to get his shot off under pressure. This is something young players can really struggle with when they first reach the NHL, even those touted as goal-scoring snipers.

Remember the Isles’ last such first-rounder? Michael dal Colle had high-end goal-scoring ability too, we were told. His “biggest asset is his big shot,” they said. And yet, in the four years since he first appeared with the big club, we’ve barely seen MDC’s shot. Because he can’t get it off. He’s not quick or shifty enough and he’s just not able to create that little bit of extra space that is the difference between a shot-on-goal and a shot-block.

Wahlstrom has those tricks in his bag. Little things like the way he contorts his body before receiving the puck or how he makes a subtle juke to change his shooting angle. He’s also a better and faster skater, with much better hands. This is why he has already scored more goals (12) than MDC (8) in 57 fewer games

I don’t say this to criticize MDC, only to explain what I think separates Wahlstrom. He is a sniper to the core. His shot is as advertised - elite at the NHL level - he knows it, and when he’s got a chance to shoot, he doesn’t pass it up. Kinda like Josh Bailey, except the opposite.

Offensively, I’ll be looking to see if he improves in two areas: (1) how he moves away from the puck to find open space where he can receive a pass, and (2) how he uses his body to shield checkers away in order to retain possession of the puck.

Looking Ahead

So what should we expect from Wahlstrom in his second pro season? That will depend in part on his role. With Jordan Eberle gone to Seattle, I know many of us were hoping for Wahlstrom to be given an extended look in his old spot on Mathew Barzal’s right wing.

Barry Trotz has spoken many times in the past about forward pairs he likes to keep together when shaking his lines up. Are there any two Islander forwards with a higher ceiling as a duo than Barzahlstrom? I think not.

One thing that has become clear, however, is that Trotz looks to balance out his forward lines rather than make them top-heavy. He’s not looking for the highest-scoring duo he can find. Remember, he’s the coach who separated one of the greatest forward duos in NHL history. When the Capitals won the Cup in 2018, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were playing on separate lines.

So as of now, it looks like Kyle Palmieri will be getting first crack at that top-line RW spot. He should fit nicely there. Palmieri has a very good shot of his own, and there were (a few merciful, Leo-less) moments in the playoffs where he and Barzal looked great together.

Also, it’s probably no accident Wahlstrom was basically kept attached to Pageau’s hip last season. It takes a while for a young player to gain this coach’s complete trust, and if Wahlstrom had it, he probably would’ve been put back into the lineup against Tampa in the playoffs when he was ready to play.

So, as much as I’d love to see it, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a 13-to-26 connection this season.

Anyway, I like a Wahlstrom-Pageau-Parise line just fine. If Wahlstrom stays healthy all season and gets consistent power-play time, he should sleepwalk his way to at least 20 goals. And if he manages to get some extended run with Barzal? Sky’s the limit.

We’ll see how it plays out.

Bonus Content

Mathew Barzal scored some unforgettable goals last season. The through-the-legs beauty against Buffalo, the one-on-five, end-to-ender against Washington, the complete humiliation of Tony DeAngelo, etc. He also scored a couple of lame goals that were stupid and boring. I put them all in this video.

The Many Faces of Mathew Barzal

The joy Mat Barzal gets from scoring goals is evident by the faces he makes while celebrating those goals.

Now go shave.

Till next time.