The New York Islanders enter next season with a similar roster for the most part. Granted, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello added a handful of players in the NHL Entry Draft and can still make a slash signing, but the team enters next season with a good roster regardless, one that will be in the mix in a competitive Metropolitan Division.
Last season, the Islanders’ pleasant surprise was seeing Noah Dobson emerge as one of their best young players with a breakout year, especially offensively, as the only defenseman with a 10-goal season on the team. While the team still has one of the older rosters in the league, there are a handful of young players that could both become breakout players for the Islanders and provide a spark to the roster. It’s unlikely anyone will have the same leap as Dobson, but in bigger roles, some of the young players can take a big step and become some of the more valuable players toward a successful season.
Among the forwards that can have a breakout season, Oliver Wahlstrom is the most ideal and likely to do so. Over the last two seasons with the Islanders, he has shown flashes, scoring 25 goals and 20 assists but has both failed to optimize his skill set and, more importantly, accumulate enough ice time to impact the offense. The 22-year-old wing forward has averaged only 12:03 ice time in his career, which aligns more with a bottom-six role and has made him more of a depth player instead of a pivotal part of the Islanders.
Wahlstrom has a notably great shot that can and should make him a top-six forward next season and an integral part of the offense. If he finds open ice in the offensive zone, especially by the faceoff circles, he can elevate his shift and the Islanders’ offense altogether.
Along with shooting accuracy, Wahlstrom is also a good skater on the right wing, allowing him to both impact rushes and contribute to the neutral zone. There’s no shortage of talent for the young forward, and if the Islanders allow him to become a regular on the forward unit, it could benefit both him and the team immensely.
The question for Wahlstrom ultimately is what shift he should play on and which forwards best optimize his talent. This issue hindered him last season and the Islanders last season, making it a priority for first-year head coach Lane Lambert. Ideally, Wahlstrom plays alongside Mathew Barzal, one of the best skaters in the league who could both open up the ice and fuel his speed as well.
However, the two young forwards both struggled last year on the same shift, and unless a left winger can complement him and Barzal, it’s unlikely they will play on the same shift again. The other options are Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who both play the center position on their respective lines and provide two different looks to the Islanders’ offense, making them intriguing options for the 22-year-old skater.
Regardless of the shift Wahlstrom plays, he will need to tap into his accurate shot and be willing to aggressively attack opposing goaltenders. If he becomes a regular in the forward unit, he will see plenty of scoring chances, making this season an ideal one for a breakout season.
The Islanders are searching for a left-shot defenseman, particularly one that can play alongside Scott Mayfield. Sebastian Aho might be the most likely to start next season as Mayfield’s pair, but if Robin Salo, who signed a two-year contract this offseason, is ready for the NHL, he can impact the later pairings on opening night. Salo, unlike the other defensemen the Islanders can start, provides a high risk but also a high reward as arguably the most promising defense prospect in the system.
Salo would struggle early on as an opening night start and, like Dobson in the first few games of the 2020-21 season, would often be out of place and hoping to adapt to the NHL level of play. However, as a great skater, he can adjust to the speed of the opponents and overall talent and be a reliable defenseman for the Islanders by midseason. Moreover, if he gets the opportunity to play the full season, he can become another good young defenseman on the team, joining Dobson and Alexander Romanov and emerge as an elite two-way player.
The Islanders already have a handful of defensemen that can contribute from the point. However, Salo can both work on his offensive zone production and become a valuable puck handler for the team, something the unit lacks. The defense is already one of the best in the league, but adding another young skater who has the potential to be one of the better players on the unit would put them over the top.
It’s unclear if Kieffer Bellows will be a part of the roster next season as he remains an unsigned restricted free agent. The Islanders might need to move on from him if they are pressed against the salary cap, but otherwise, they can re-sign him to a team-friendly deal, allowing him to be a depth player.
In three seasons with the team, Bellows has been on the roster as a bottom-six forward and has yet to prove that he can regularly contribute, especially in the offensive zone. However, he is one of the more unique players on the Islanders roster and would provide a different look to the offense if given a greater role. As a power forward, he would crash the net both on the rush and from the wing in the offensive zone and force opposing defenses to adapt to his play, making this season a big one for him if he remains with the team.
Other Islanders Breakout Candidates
Along with some of the young players on the roster, a few prospects with the American Hockey League (AHL) Bridgeport Islanders can join the team at some point next season and provide a spark. Aatu Raty is the notable rising star prospect in the Islanders’ system and, if he is ahead of schedule, can add a young scoring presence to the team. Similarly, Simon Holmstrom and William Dufour are two prospects that will be watched closely as they can add a scoring touch to the forward unit.
Romanov might not be classified as a breakout candidate. After all, he was a reliable starter for the Montreal Canadiens last season before getting traded during the NHL Entry Draft. However, he can surprise the Islanders in the offensive zone and become one of the best two-way defensemen. The 22-year-old defenseman is still looking to improve his shot but, as a great skater, can slowly progress into a scoring defenseman.
The Islanders’ farm system might appear to be one of the worst in the NHL, but there are plenty of young players both on the roster and on the AHL roster that can impact the team next season. Moreover, with a breakout year, one of the younger players will become an integral part of the team’s success in a year where they hope to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.