When the Islanders open up the 2020-21 season on Thursday night against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, there are a few things that are pretty much set-in stone. It’s expected that Semyon Varlamov will be between the pipes so the highly anticipated NHL debut of Ilya Sorokin will have to wait at least two more days. The top six defenseman will be Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Andy Greene and Noah Dobson. We also know three out of the four forward lines are set.
Mat Barzal will center the top line between Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle.
Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey make up the second line.
And you have “the best fourth line in hockey” with Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.
But what about the third line? Who is going to play with Jean-Gabriel Pageau?
Judging by what we’ve seen so far, it’s very possible that Pageau could have one or maybe even two rookies as his linemates as both Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows have been impressive in the abbreviated training camp.
And Head Coach Barry Trotz has certainly taken notice of them as well as some of the other young players in camp.
“The difference between this year and last year, and this applied to all of our young guys, is there was more separation from them being legit full-time NHL players from the group last year,” said Trotz. “They’ve closed that distance immensely and they’ve put a lot of pressure on the existing group but also they’re putting pressure on the coaching staff to include them and win a spot. That’s what you want. They look like men. Last year they looked like boys playing with men and now they’re starting to look like men and that’s the difference.”
Pageau has had a number of different linemates during the playoffs and that trend has continued into training camp. But in Sunday’s scrimmage, Pageau played with Wahlstrom and Bellows and that line opened up some eyes.
“I though we created good chemistry with Wally and Belly,” said Pageau. “They’re definitely two really smart players. They have a really good skillset.”
The Islanders drafted Bellows in the first round (19th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He made his NHL debut last season and had two goals and one assist in eight games. Bellows led the Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport last season with 31 points and 22 goals for the Sound Tigers. The son of former NHL player Brian Bellows, the Edina, Minnesota native was a member of the United States team that won the gold medal at the 2017 World Junior Championships.
Wahlstrom also made his NHL debut last season playing in nine games for the Islanders but did not register a point. A first-round pick (11th overall) of the Islanders in 2018, Wahlstrom began last season playing for Boston College where he had 8 goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 36 games before turning pro. With Bridgeport, Wahlstrom played 45 games for the Sound Tigers and had 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points in 45 games.
“Ollie has looked really good in camp,” said Trotz. “His shot is world class. That’s what separates him from a lot of different guys. He’s got a great release.”
It certainly looks like Wahlstrom and Kieffer, as well as other young players like Otto Koivula, are more NHL ready this year than they were last season.
“Wally and Kieffer, and a lot of the young guys, have all come in and made an impact,” said Islanders Captain Anders lee. “I think these guys have come in with something to prove a little bit more this year. I think they’ve done a great job working in this offseason to make sure that they’re ready to put their best foot forward in camp and I think all the kids have done a great job.”
There’s not much time left before the Islanders have to have their opening right roster and taxi squad finalized as we’re only a couple of days away from the first game of the season. The AHL season doesn’t start until February so it’s possible that players like Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows, as well as others, will be with the Islanders until further decisions have to be made.
But around the league, there are many young players who are getting a chance to be on opening-night rosters because of salary cap issues and other leagues not playing. For the likes of Wahlstrom, Bellows, and Koivula, maybe that chance to show what they can do will keep them on Long Island and not in Bridgeport.