Two days have passed, and there’s been no say in whether or not Oliver Wahlstrom accepted his qualifying offer from the New York Islanders. Without any other indication otherwise, it’s fair to say that the restricted free agent forward declined the deal that would’ve paid him $874,125 for the upcoming season.
Wahlstrom can still return to the Islanders, but he won’t be the same player he was the last time he touched the ice.
In a late December matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins at UBS Arena, Wahlstrom exited the game following his first shift and never returned. He was later diagnosed with a lower-body injury and placed on the injured reserve list, cutting his season short after only 35 games.
Before its abrupt end, Wahlstrom showed some promise that he was ready to take the next step by putting up 16 points with seven goals before his fourth NHL.
“I thought I was making strides,” Wahlstrom said on May 1. “The first month was awesome. Then a little bit of a dip, and then I got right back up to where I was again, and then the injury happened. I thought I had a really good summer and a pretty good first half of the season. [It was] very frustrating.”
Although Wahlstrom’s year was cut short, he used the time away from the game to prioritize other aspects, such as nutrition, in preparation for his return. Seven months post-Wahlstrom’s injury, Islanders’ president of hockey operations, Lou Lamoriello, made it clear at his June 6 press conference that the forward will be ready for training camp.
“I don’t anticipate. He will be ready,” Lamoriello said. “He’s started skating, it’s just a matter of getting him where he has to be, but he will be ready for training camp 100%. As far as where he’s at and where his role might be, we’ll have to wait until training camp.”
There are two places in the Islanders’ lineup where Wahlstrom could slide into. However, neither is an ideal fit.
He could skate on the third line with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Hudson Fasching. It’s the safest option as it will give him time to get his legs underneath him again while also not facing the opponent’s toughest competition every night. But it’s also an option that will likely prevent him from scoring often.
Placing Wahlstrom on the first line with Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal will give him the best chance to produce, but he’d be forced to play his off-wing, which is a tough ask for most players, never mind one who hasn’t faced live competition since just after Christmas. Not to mention, Horvat and Barzal will be under a lot of pressure in the season’s early going. Having Wahlstrom alongside while he’s trying to reacclimate could make that difficult.
No matter where Wahlstrom is in the lineup next year, he wants to utilize his size more.
“I’m a big guy. I think I’m going to put a little bit more muscle on the summer, and I think that’s where my game needs to trend,” Wahlstrom said. “I have the skill, but I have a lot of fun when I kind of create a little havoc. I think I stay in games more when I’m like that. I think that the next step in my game is being a hard-nosed power forward that puts the puck in the net.”
Listed at 6’2″, 204 pounds, Wahlstrom’s stature is something he’s yet to fully incorporate into his game. If he can couple that with the skill he’s shown previously, he has the potential to have a career season this year. But while developing more of his power makes complete sense for Wahlstrom and adds a new dimension to his game, it doesn’t quite do the same for the Islanders.
With veterans such as Horvat, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee on the roster, who all use their size and strength to produce offense, Wahlstrom developing into that same mold doesn’t provide anything new for an Islanders team that lacks speed.
In an attempt to solve that issue, Lamoriello had his eyes set on acquiring Alex DeBrincat in a deal with the Ottawa Senators for a package that included Wahlstrom and Pageau, according to Newsday’s Andrew Gross.
Of course, DeBrincat was dealt to the Detroit Red Wings, and the NHL’s trade market seems to have crashed for the time being. Meanwhile, Wahlstrom remains a free agent, and there’s been no indication of where talks currently are between him and the Islanders.
Given the state of the market, it’s unlikely that Wahlstrom will play for any other team next year, but not impossible until he officially signs on the dotted line.