Amid the competition to become part of the New York Rangers’ future at center, one that’s supposedly being waged solely by a group of talented recent NHL arrivals, it might be getting more difficult to ignore one player who not long ago also held the “high-end prospect” distinction.
That would be Ryan Strome, who at age 26 is a relative graybeard amongst peers Brett Howden, Lias Andersson and current Hartford Wolf pack member Filip Chytil – none of whom are over 21 years old. All three of those kids are former first-round draft picks, highly regarded players who were expected to establish successful NHL careers as centers for the long term, having been selected so high.
As so often happens with youth, though, the potential might not match production right away – if at all. The process goes sideways and backward much more frequently then it trends endlessly upward, and that’s certainly been the case for the rebuilding Blueshirts. Chytil’s high offensive ceiling has been seen only in glimpses surrounded by inconsistent, uncertain play that has landed him in the minors to start the season. Andersson, taken seventh overall by the Rangers in 2017, has shown little to this point to suggest he’s a keeper, while Howden has mostly looked good in 2019-20 after hitting the rookie wall last season.
Strome can relate. After all, he was in the exact situation as those three players eight years ago.
“We just needed that one as a team,” Strome told Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post after scoring his first two goals of the season in a 6-2 home victory over the first-place Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. “You could tell by the emotion, I think guys don’t really care right now who scored, or who did what. That was a good ‘prove it’ to ourselves, and ‘prove it’ to our fans.
“Feels good right now. We worked hard for that one.”
Strome Looking like a Steal from Oilers
Any success Strome has on Broadway after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in November has to feel especially good. The fifth overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 2011 draft, Strome had been verging on being labeled with the “B” word (that’s bust, of course) ever since, playing with three teams in eight seasons. He managed a 50-point effort in 2014-15 but hasn’t hit 40 since.
Yet something seemed to happen last season when Strome arrived at Madison Square Garden in a swap of unwanted forwards, with the eventually bought out Ryan Spooner going the other way to the Oilers. Showing versatility but doing his best work at center, Strome totaled a career-high 18 goals – 17 with the Rangers – in 63 games while performing well on faceoffs and solidifying the middle for a youthful club.
Strome’s career-best 22.5 percent shooting percentage in 2018-19 looked like an outlier, and like many of his teammates, he had trouble getting onto the scoresheet in the early going this season as the Rangers struggled. Yet he had been turning in the same kind of rock-solid play before Thursday, consistently among the best Blueshirts forwards over the first eight games and winning 55.7 percent of his faceoffs.
Is it possible that at 26, hardly old but past the pressure that came with being a top-five pick, Strome has started to finally figure out how to maximize the talent that compelled the Islanders to draft him so high? And is he more than just a stopgap for the Rangers, which has been widely assumed since his arrival, or perhaps part of the future?
“Listen, you can look at the goals, and the power plays, and this or that or the nice plays,” Strome said after the victory over the Sabres, the Rangers’ best game of the season. “But it’s the little things.”
It remains to be seen whether the front office eventually chooses to consider a possible extension for Strome, whose two-year, $6.2 million deal expires at the end of this season. What’s certain is that they need him desperately at center right now, with Chytil and Andersson (and to a degree, Howden) anything but fully ready to step into dependable, every night roles.
As Strome is keenly aware, where you’re drafted guarantees nothing. Despite their youth, Chytil and Andersson have plenty of work to do to prove they belong, given the inauspicious starts to their careers. The Rangers aren’t close to giving up on either player, but as coach David Quinn has demonstrated in his short tenure at the helm, he’s not interested in playing anyone based on potential. He’ll need to see results from the kid centers if they want ice time to try and firm up their place in the club’s long-term plans.
Strome Providing Leadership, Perspective
Strome understands how fleeting such opportunities are. He knows what it’s like to go from highly regarded to largely written off in a short time. With that experience and resulting perspective under his belt, he also appears to be emerging as something of a leader for a youthful group that’s in need of as much of that as it can get.
“The most important thing is guys know their identity, guys know who they are,” Strome told the Post. “No matter what line you’re playing on, if you bring to the table what you were brought here for, I think we’ll be successful.”
For Strome, that means standing in front of the net for deflections – which resulted in his first goal against Buffalo – maintaining his heady positioning and passing in the offensive zone and finishing plays with his underrated shot, as he did on a 2-on-1 with Howden in the third period Thursday that made it 5-2. Strome also surely appreciates the plum opportunity to center star winger Artemi Panarin, an assignment that began Thursday and could continue for a while if Strome keeps producing.
Re-signing Strome to a reasonable contract might be possible with the Rangers’ salary cap situation set to improve next season. It will depend in part on whether the club wants to commit long term to Chris Kreider (iffy) and keep Jesper Fast (Rangers seem certain to try), with Tony DAngelo and Brendan Lemieux also potentially needing to be re-signed.
Perhaps Strome will still prove to be nothing more than a temporary solution, with the front office looking to move him at the trading deadline in order to open up minutes for Andersson and Chytil, kids still enjoying the honeymoon period Strome experienced not long ago. For now, though, the not-so-grizzled veteran with the high draft position forever attached to his name looks determined to audition against those players for a future key role in the middle on Broadway.