There have been a couple of occasions this season when New York Islanders rookie Oliver Wahlstrom has been caught on the jumbotron singing along to whatever music is filling the arena during a stoppage in play. Now, there are probably a few coaches who wouldn’t exactly embrace that kind of approach from a 20-year-old – Tortorella, John and Sutter, Darryl to name but two – but it’s clear his current coach has no problem with it.
“To me, I love that,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “I love that he’s enjoying it. It’s not a mental grind for him. He’s enjoying the moment, he’s not intimidated by the moment. That’s a great attitude to have. I’m OK, I just don’t know whether he’s a good singer or not.”
As long as Wahlstrom keeps playing the way he has of late, Trotz probably couldn’t care less if the kid proves to be the second coming of Yoko Ono. After going without a point in nine games last season, Wahlstrom is making a tangible contribution to the Islanders’ success in the East Division this season. And speaking of rookies, so has goalie Ilya Sorokin, who has been in the nets for eight Islander wins this season, the most impressive of which came Monday night when his team was outshot 35-18 by the Philadelphia Flyers, yet prevailed with a 2-1 win in overtime. “It would be larceny, probably,” Trotz said. “He would get five to 10.”
And it was earlier in that game that Wahlstrom gave another glimpse of what the Islanders saw in him when they drafted him 11th overall in 2018. Playing on the third line with Jean-Gabriel Pageau at center and Anthony Beauvillier on the right side, Wahstrom used his size to establish a presence in front of the Flyers’ net, then dug the puck out of a crowd in the crease and put it in. It was Wahlstrom’s eighth goal of the season and it gave him four goals and six points in his past five games.
As for Sorokin, he doesn’t have the body of work other rookie goalies such as Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals, Kaapo Kahkonen of the Minnesota Wild and Kevin Lankinen of the Chicago Blackhawks have, but he has made the most of his starts. His .922 save percentage is second only to Alex Nedeljkovic of the Carolina Hurricanes among rookie goalies with 10 or more starts this season.
“Day-in, day-out, practice day, game day…he’s always trying to do his best,” Pageau said of Sorokin. “He’s super competitive. Even in practice, he lets one goal in and he’s not happy. He’s trying to save all of them. And that’s why I think he’s so good. He’s fighting for us and he’s playing for the logo in front and we’re happy to have him here.”
The Islanders have played 33 games this season and Semyon Varlamov has started two of every three games, with 22 starts to Sorokin’s 11. The play of both goalies has been a big reason why the Islanders are jockeying for first place in what is easily the most competitive and toughest division in hockey. With Varlamov under contract for two more seasons at $5 million per season and Sorokin entering the off-season as a restricted free agent, the Islanders look to have their goaltending concerns covered for the next couple of seasons. With his play, Sorokin is indeed setting himself up for a pretty handsome payday, since he has arbitration rights and has been putting up some impressive numbers. But it should not come as a big surprise that Sorokin is ready for the challenge. Drafted in the third round in 2014, he certainly wasn’t in a huge rush to plunge into the North American game, playing his trade at home in the KHL until coming over this season at the age of 25.
In fact, when you look at some of the names and the play of this year’s crop of NHL rookie goalies, perhaps there’s some hope for some long-term consistency at the position. As any hockey person about goaltenders and most of them will tell you it takes a player at that position until the age of 25 to truly be ready for the best league in the world. And guess how old Sorokin, Lankinen, Nedeljkovic and Vanecek are? You guessed it, they’re 25. Kahkonen is 24.