None of the New York Rangers’ top players are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, but both of their top centers, Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome, are set to become UFAs after next season. The Blueshirts’ top priority will be making sure they find a way to keep Zibanejad, who has become a star, but Strome has also developed into a very important player and next season will be a crucial one for him.
Strome’s Play With the Rangers
The Rangers acquired Strome from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Ryan Spooner early in the 2018-19 season and the trade has paid off for the Blueshirts. While Spooner hasn’t played in the NHL 2018-19, Strome has established himself as New York’s second-best center.
After scoring just one goal and one assist in 18 games with the Oilers, Strome took advantage of his opportunity to center the rebuilding Rangers’ second line and finished with 18 goals and 15 assists in 63 games in 2018-19. He had a knack for scoring timely goals late in games and played with grit. He also did a nice job on both the power play and penalty kill.
The following offseason the Blueshirts signed star winger Artemi Panarin, and early in the 2019-20 season, he formed chemistry with Strome. Their excellent play allowed the Rangers to keep Zibanejad and Panarin on separate lines and both of those lines produced very well offensively. Strome ended up with 18 goals, which was just one short of his career-high, and 59 points, a career-high, in just 70 games before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This season proved to be a challenging one for the Rangers as Panarin missed 14 games and Zibanejad slumped badly early in the season. Strome was one of New York’s most consistent forwards, playing well at both ends of the ice and proving he could continue to produce offensively even with Panarin out of the lineup. He finished the season with 14 goals and 35 assists, while playing in all 56 games.
Rangers’ Lack of Depth at Center
One of the biggest issues facing the Rangers entering the offseason is their lack of depth at center with Zibanejad and Strome as New York’s only two established centers. They are the only two centers that have produced consistently for the Blueshirts over the last few seasons. Additionally, none of the Rangers’ top prospects are centers.
Filip Chytil is just 21 years old and has shown some promise at center, but he has struggled on faceoffs, winning just 39.6 percent of them in his career. He has also gone through some long slumps offensively and had just one goal in his final 20 games this season. He’s definitely an important part of the Rangers’ future but he hasn’t played with enough consistency to be a top-six forward yet.
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Brett Howden, one of New York’s other young centers, had a very disappointing season. He is still just 23 but this year was a big step in the wrong direction as he had just one goal and six assists in 42 games, and his goal was scored on an empty net. He plays with some physicality and is a good penalty killer, but it’s hard to imagine him being more than a fourth-line center given his offensive struggles.
The Rangers may try to address their lack of depth at center with a trade or by signing a free agent but ideally, that move will be made in addition to keeping Zibanejad and Strome rather than as an attempt to replace one of them. While re-signing Zibanejad has to be New York’s top priority, Strome is also a very important player, and if he plays well next season, he could earn a contract extension.
Strome has exceeded expectations since joining the Rangers and it would be a tough decision to trade him given how well he has played as well as the Blueshirts’ lack of options to replace him. Next season will be a very important one for him and if he continues to play at a high level he may well prove too valuable for the Rangers to let him go.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, rooting for the Rangers, Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. When my dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees fell short, I started writing about sports instead. I’m a proud graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.