The New York Islanders have a recurring problem. They obtain a single top-notch talent and have had trouble complementing his skills to get the most out of him. We saw it with John Tavares, and we are seeing it again with Mathew Barzal.
The problem with Barzal has been two-fold, as he has had to cover way too much ice during his shifts and has struggled to find someone who can consistently finish the plays he creates. The enormous improvement in Oliver Wahlstrom’s defensive game may have solved half of this issue.
Ever since Oct. 26, a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers, Islanders head coach Lane Lambert has stapled Oliver Wahlstrom and Mathew Barzal together, and over time the two have shown a strong understanding of one another in each passing game.
The goals may not have come at the rate many hoped, with Wahlstrom having scored just two goals at even strength to Mathew Barzal’s one.
But those stats do not tell the whole story.
Since the two became linemates, when both have been on the ice together (93:25 minutes, five-on-five), the New York Islanders have outscored their opponents 12-3, scoring 3.72 goals per 60 minutes while allowing just 0.93.
When Wahlstrom has not been on Barzal’s wing, the Islanders goals per 60 dropped heavily to 3.77, with the goals against per 60 skyrocketing to 3.01.
For comparison purposes, when the duo was on the ice together in 2021-22 (210:54) per Natural Stat Trick, the Islanders were outscored 8-6, scoring just 1.71 goals per 60 minutes while allowing 2.28.
Understandably so, more goes into those stat lines than just the play of Wahlstrom and Barzal. But the eye test has shown, whether Josh Bailey (83:00), Zach Parise (34:36), or Simon Holmstrom (39:16) have been in the left-wing spot, the two-way game of Wahlstrom has been a standout to the success of that line and the overall success of the Islanders.
But it’s not just about what Wahlstrom has done defensively, whether he’s intercepting passes or slowing down the opponent’s transition game with hits and pressure. He’s used his 6-foot-2, 204-pound frame to forecheck hard and win board battles in the offensive zone, which more often than not has led to Barzal having the puck on his stick, which has led to more cycling and offensive opportunities.
“He’s done a great job,” Mathew Barzal said. “He’s been a pitbull in battles, and I feel like he’s just really, really made an effort and really dove headfirst into just wanting to be a complete player.”
“[He’s been] hitting, playing that role of doing a little bit of everything, so he’s done a great job.”
Wahlstrom struggled to play a two-way game over his first few seasons in the NHL, under the tutelage of head coach Barry Trotz. Now under the leadership of Lane Lambert, Wahlstrom has taken major strides.
“He’s playing well defensively,” Lambert said. [He’s been] responsible. He’s in position. So he’s doing a good job there.”
As we sit here on Dec. 6, Wahlstrom has recorded six goals and six assists in 25 games, averaging 12:20 minutes per contest.
The 22-year-old sits second on the team in shots (five-on-five) with 47 and has created the second-most individual scoring chances at 51. His eight turnovers are tied for the third-fewest on the team.
He does lead the Islanders in penalty minutes, at 11, with a few fights and other instances where he’s stood up for teammates, but he’s also drawn six penalties as well.
On the defensive side of the puck, Wahlstrom has 30 hits and 13 blocks, both ranking second amongst the Islanders’ forward groups. His 10 takeaways are the fifth-highest among the Islanders. Besides the hit total, Wahlstrom will likely set career bests in the other defensive categories.
In an exclusive interview with NYI Hockey Now, Wahlstrom spoke on his defensive game and how he’s felt it’s helped Barzal.
“[I feel] pretty good,” Wahlstrom said. “That part of the game is important, and I find that my offensive game opens up a little bit. So, [I’m] staying patient, and I’m getting more chances. So it’s been good.”
In the past, Barzal has been the player that had had to get back on defense, play down low and start transitions if and when the Islanders won a puck battle. But now, Wahlstrom has been doing more of that, taking some pressure off Barzal.
“Obviously, I want him [Barzal] to have the puck more than 80 percent of the time, so whatever I can do to make it easier on him,” Wahlstrom said.” Sometimes he’s the third guy back, [and] I’ll just go down and play, and like I said, it’s nice when he has the puck more, and I can find those areas.”
All the talk heading into the season, whether it was from Wahlstrom’s mouth or his teammates, was just how hard he worked at his game this past summer.
NYI Hockey Now caught up with Matt Martin, one of Wahlstrom’s teammates who spoke highly about his offseason work, to discuss what he has seen from Wahlstrom’s defensive game as of late.
“I imagine that [his defensive game] is something they maybe the coaching staff talked to him about. And as a young player, I feel like coaches usually do stress that because, you know, in junior and other leagues, their skill probably took over more than anything, and maybe didn’t have to pay attention to the defensive game as much,” Martin said.
“I just think, on all aspects, physically and mentally, he worked so hard this offseason to improve and you kind of set his place inside this room, and I think he’s done a great job. He really has, and there’ll be ups and downs. You have them throughout your whole career, but I think he has really grown and blossomed, and he’s on his way to being the player that he wants to be.”
Now that the defensive issue seems to have been solved, the Islanders’ priority must be bringing in a finisher to get the most out of that line. Maybe someone like Patrick Kane fits the bill, who, despite his playmaking prowess, can put the puck in the net consistently.