Rangers’ Strome Might Prove to Be More Than a Stopgap

Ryan Strome is just a stopgap at center for the New York Rangers. A nice player acquired in a lopsided trade more than two seasons ago, who’s found a comfort level and provided some decent production while the Blueshirts build toward a future without him. His two-year, $9 million contract reflects exactly that.

That’s the stock narrative, anyway. Is it still relevant, or, in the vernacular of the social media generation, has it aged poorly?

For his part, Strome seems determined to make it the latter, as he continues to deliver for a Rangers team starved for competent play and offense down the middle behind Mika Zibanejad.

The No. 5 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft tends to be overlooked because of the aforementioned “temporary” label attached to him and the middling start to his career, but facts are facts: Strome is enjoying his best season in 2020-21, producing at a nearly point-per-game pace and posting some impressive advanced statistics as well.

Ryan Strome New York Rangers
Rangers center Ryan Strome (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With 12 goals – 10 of them coming at even strength – and 24 assists for 36 points in 39 games, the Rangers couldn’t ask for much more from the center who was robbed from the Edmonton Oilers for Ryan Spooner on Nov. 16, 2018. Yet more is exactly what the Blueshirts have been getting.

Strome’s impact this season has gone well beyond points: his Corsi For percentage is 51.1, above his 50.1 mark of 2019-20. The Rangers have scored five more goals than their opponents at even strength when Strome has been on the ice. Most impressively, Strome has posted an xGF% of 56.4, and the Rangers have generated 93 High Danger Chances For to 78 against with Strome on.

His faceoff win percentage of about 45 isn’t good at all, but he’s hardly the only center who struggles at the dot for the Blueshirts, who have been unable to solve that problem for several years now. Strome has also been considerably better defensively and without the puck this season over last, signs that the high draft pick’s game is growing in his eighth season.

Is Strome a Creation of Artemi Panarin?

The immediate counterpoint to the argument that Strome might actually be a long-term solution generally consists of two words: Artemi Panarin. Yes, there’s little doubt that Strome’s chemistry with and subsequently extended role as the superstar left wing’s center has been extremely fortuitous for the 27-year-old’s career. However, it’s another generalization that Strome might be putting to rest.

Strome’s 59 points in 70 games last season, most of them accrued while centering Panarin during his career-best 95-point performance, were largely dismissed as a product of the Bread Man’s brilliance. However, Panarin missed nine games this February and March as he dealt with the fallout from a controversy that emerged from his native Russia, in which a former coach accused him of assaulting a woman, a suspicious story with no corroboration that may have been politically motivated. In those nine contests, Strome recorded four goals and five assists.

In the process, he appears to have sparked the mercurial Chris Kreider on one of his trademark tears. Kreider endured a six-game goal drought before scoring nine goals in six games from Feb. 20-March 4. Strome assisted on five of those nine, with eight of Kreider’s goals coming after he was moved to Strome’s line in Panarin’s absence.

Panarin’s 2019-20 season, in which he averaged a career-high 1.38 points per game, has been followed by him recording 40 points in 28 contests so far in 2020-21 – a 1.43 average. Are the Rangers certain that Strome’s numbers are simply inflated by his dynamic linemate – or might Strome’s presence actually have something to do with Panarin’s rise? How big does the sample size have to be for the latter to become a possibility to consider?

A plus-21 in 2019-20, Strome is plus-7 this season.

Here are the advanced stats of another center in 2020-21: Corsi For % of 54.99, 10 goals for his team and 16 against when he’s on the ice, an xGF% of 56.42, 61 High Danger Chances for his team to 48 against.

That player? Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel.

This isn’t to suggest Strome is at all comparable to Eichel, the young star who’s been rumored to be unhappy in Buffalo and could be a prime trade target for the Rangers this offseason. Eichel’s numbers aren’t helped by playing on a bad team, and he’s been out since March 7 with an upper-body injury.

Instead, the comparison is meant to provide some context for what Strome has delivered this season, and how his all-around game hasn’t been far off what a much more highly-regarded player has produced, even if it’s a relatively small sample size.

Strome has simply been among the Rangers’ best forwards in 2020-21, his pinpoint passing and powerful wrist shot leading to him being the club’s third-leading scorer behind Panarin (40 points) and Adam Fox (37). In 16 games from March 4-April 1, Strome recorded five goals and 16 assists – again, a stretch during which Panarin missed nine contests. Strome’s 11-game point streak was snapped in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres.

Ryan Strome
Strome celebrates a goal (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Though few around the NHL seem to have noticed, the ascension from depth forward to No. 2 center has been impressive for the player drafted one spot ahead of Zibanejad, the Rangers’ top center. Strome has recorded 128 points in 172 games since arriving in one of general manager Jeff Gorton’s most successful deals.

Strome’s Rangers Fate May Be Subject to Near-Future Acquisitions

So does this impact Strome’s future with the Rangers, seemingly set in stone already? The answer isn’t easy. It’s a conundrum of salary and possible near-future acquisitions/departures to remake the situation down the middle (Eichel? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? More responsibility for Filip Chytil?) that has yet to fully play out, and probably won’t for another season. If Strome is still in a Blueshirt in 2021-22 and his game continues to flourish, the decision for the front office is going to be a tough one. He’s been very good for the Rangers for two seasons now and looks to be getting better.

Will Gorton allow a player racking up offense at nearly a point-per-game rate who meshes perfectly with Panarin and appears to raise the game of others as well, and will turn 29 next offseason, to leave via unrestricted free agency? Would Gorton want to give Strome a contract worth between $6 and $7 million for four to five years? In absence of the acquisition of another center – no easy task, given the premium placed on that position – could the GM afford not to?

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres star center Jack Eichel, who could supplant Strome through a trade (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It remains a question for another day, or specifically, another year – though there’s an outside chance it could also be for a few days from now, with Monday’s trade deadline looming and Strome’s value as high as it’s ever been.

In the meantime, Strome is doing everything he can to shed his “stopgap” designation. Right now, at least, he seems anything but temporary or disposable to the Rangers.

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