It didn’t take a psychiatrist to see that Islanders forward Oliver Wahlstrom was frustrated toward the end of last season.
The 22-year-old, who had seemed to be on course for a breakout during the first half of the season, sputtered to the finish line, with three points in his final 26 games. Though he and then-head coach Barry Trotz both downplayed the perceived issues between them, it was clear the two could have gotten along better.
That sets up this season as a sort of make-or-break stage for the former first-round pick. Wahlstrom is in the last year of his entry-level deal and getting to play under a new head coach, Lane Lambert, who early on has preached aggression. On Friday in the back of the Islanders’ locker room, Wahlstrom spoke of relieving himself of the burdens of his own expectations.
“I think I just got too worried about the external things rather than focus on the internal things,” he told The Post. “Things I can do. This summer, I’ve just been focusing on staying calm and enjoying it. There’s no expectations other than winning, and winning a Stanley Cup. I’m not trying to put any expectations on myself and go out there and have fun.”
Wahlstrom, a Maine native, stayed on Long Island over the summer. He took advice from general manager Lou Lamoriello to keep things simple and work hard, and it’s clear he’s aware of his age.
“I’m growing and developing,” he said. “I feel really good coming into this camp, being able to take that next step and mature my game.”
Along with teammate Matt Martin, Wahlstrom worked out at an MMA gym a few times a week, getting an education in a sport that can help in conditioning and if the gloves come off. By the end of the summer, Ryan Pulock was joining them as well.
“I think for a guy like Oliver, who kind of has a physical edge to his game, from time to time, you get under people’s skin and people might come after him,” Martin told The Post. “It’s not a bad thing to have a little bit of knowledge and I guess be a little comfortable in that type of situation.”
Wahlstrom has fought five times in his career, per HockeyFights.com, including twice last year against the now-retired P.K. Subban and the Red Wings’ Adam Erne.
“We’re looking for him to take the next step as well,” Lambert said. “So what is that? It’s continue to progress. He’s a goal-scorer, he can shoot the puck, but what he’s done in the summer away from the rink and now in the first couple weeks of training camp, he’s matured. And he looks like a guy who’s really ready to fight for a job.”
Despite the praise, that underscores the fact that, of all the returning forwards from the top 12 from last season, Wahlstrom’s position might be the most precarious. Kieffer Bellows has a new contract and will continue to challenge for playing time. Simon Holmstrom, the Islanders’ 2019 first-round pick, has skated with Mathew Barzal and Zach Parise during the first two days of camp and could be a dark horse to take somebody’s spot.
That somebody could be Wahlstrom, who is still exempt from waivers if sent to AHL Bridgeport. That is a long way from happening — Wahlstrom has been working with Anders Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau on a line that will be intriguing if Lambert rolls with it in the preseason — but the new coach at least doesn’t seem to be acting as though Wahlstrom is guaranteed anything.
The ceiling is still high. Wahlstrom has a lethal shot and looked at times last season as though he could threaten to score 30 goals, a number he ultimately fell well short of reaching.
“I think he’s gonna grow as a player just like everyone else does,” Martin said. “Get smarter and smarter as his career goes on. He also needs to gain more confidence as well. Confidence is obviously everything.
“Obviously for us, him having a big breakout year would be a very good thing.”
Wahlstrom might first need to show that his summer work has paid dividends.