Roughly three months ago, Oliver Wahlstrom started off his first professional season with the call-up every budding NHLer dreams of. He spent nine games - including his NHL debut - up top with the Islanders before returning to the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. In the time since, he's integrated the lessons he learned from the Isles, held a leadership role while representing his country at World Juniors and advanced his development as a professional hockey player.
"I learned a lot when I was up there," Wahlstrom said of his Islanders recall. "It was really healthy for me to go through that and learn first-hand from all of those guys. I was really excited to keep learning and keep playing pro hockey with my buddies down here. That's the key for me."
The 19-year-old's first NHL game didn't lack excitement; Wahlstrom and the Islanders took on the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Oct. 14 and grabbed the 3-2 win in overtime in a dramatic, late-game comeback.
Video: Wahlstrom on his first game
"My first game was against the Stanley Cup Champions, so I was excited for that," Wahlstrom continued. "To see [Vladimir] Tarasenko, [Alex] Pietrangelo, all of those guys that I watched since I was little was pretty eye opening and pretty humbling."
The Isles' 2018 first-round pick (11th overall pick) was with the Islanders from Oct. 14 to Nov. 9, while Jordan Eberle was sidelined with a lower-body injury. Wahlstrom didn't record a point during his stint with the Isles, he was still used in a top-six role seeing looks alongside Derick Brassard, Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee. The winger also saw some action on the Isles' third line where he played more of a checking line role, but overall gained valuable insight from the diverse experiences.
"The first three games I played some good minutes with some really good players," Wahlstrom said. "I was learning and it's really different up there. There's a lot more detail than what I'm used to. It was a really good learning experience for me to jump around in the lineup and play with a lot of different guys who have different roles."
In his first game back with Bridgeport on Nov. 9, the Quincy, Mass. native buried a backdoor feed from Otto Koivula. Wahlstrom has always been highly touted as a bonafide goal scorer with a wicked shot, but upon his return from the Islanders he carried himself with buoyant energy.
"When he came back, he came back with confidence," Bridgeport Head Coach Brent Thompson said. "I think that was one of the biggest things. He came back and was a confident player, he felt confident in his game. Obviously, the opportunity to learn from those guys up there was unbelievable. I thought coming back with us he was obviously playing a lot more minutes, getting his timing back as well in more special teams situations more than us was up there. He was a little rusty, but overall, I was really happy with his play coming back. He had a bit of excitement to him coming back from the NHL as far as where he had to be with tempo and pace and where he's at right now."
Just as any team or player goes through, Wahlstrom experienced a rut halfway through the month of November through mid-December. Fortunately, Wahlstrom was selected to represent Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic with fellow Isles prospect Jacob Pivonka. The opportunity afforded Wahlstrom to compete against some of the world's best, embrace a leadership role as he wore the 'A' and gain some confidence back.
Wahlstrom and Team USA didn't post the team success they would have liked after losing to Team Finland 1-0 in the quarterfinals, but Wahlstrom chipped in offensively, with five points (1G, 4A) in five games.
"It's an honor to represent your country," Wahlstrom said of the tournament. "It was a good tournament but a tough ending, but I enjoyed it...I was very fortunate [to go]. I wanted to go so bad. We had a good run. This year, we didn't do too well. At the same time, it was fun, and I learned a lot."
Since returning stateside and back with the Sound Tigers, Wahlstrom has added three points (1G, 2A) through his last six games. Through 27 career games in the AHL, Wahlstrom has 12 points (4G, 8A) including one power-play goal.
As a team, the Sound Tigers have not had the season they envision, as they are currently last in the Atlantic Division with 35 points (15-25-5). With a roster comprised of veteran players and rookies like Wahlstrom, they hope to build off of their detailed foundation and get rewarded for their persistence. This too, can be a learning experience for the young pro.
"We just need some consistency in our game," Wahlstrom said. "I think that's the most important thing. You also want to make sure you're enjoying it, that's huge. That competitiveness is important for us too. We've just got to build off of that."
In the meantime, Wahlstrom's focus isn't on the numbers or even the results necessarily, but on how he can best benefit his team by playing to the systems and in turn, integrating his own strengths as he executes his role. For a happy-go-lucky sprite like Wahlstrom, keeping a positive attitude and remembering that his profession is to play the sport he loves is huge.
"For me, right now, I just need to put my head down and work hard," Wahlstrom said. "I'm not necessarily focused on the points and the goals. I think that will come with me just working with my play without the puck. Just doing those things and focusing on that a lot. The coaching staff and stuff have just shown me video and helped a lot and also just trying to enjoy it. This is what I've always wanted to do so you've just got to enjoy coming to the rink every day and playing hockey."