Ryan Strome faced an uphill battle from the moment the news of his trade from the New York Islanders to the Edmonton Oilers was made public in June 2017. Fairly or unfairly, the then 23-year-old forward was expected by many to offset the offensive void created by the departure of Jordan Eberle, the very man he was traded for.
Three quarters into his first campaign north of the border, those initial lofty and unrealistic expectations have proven to be just that; lofty and unrealistic. Questions are no longer centered around the number of points Strome will produce but instead focus on his future, or lack thereof, in the city of Edmonton.
Strome arrived in Edmonton with a positive attitude and spoke to the media about the excitement of joining such a storied franchise. The city was still abuzz as fans continued to ride the wave of the team’s first playoff appearance in over a decade. Things were finally looking up for the club after struggling to get out of the league’s basement for what seemed like an eternity.
As a player, the former Islanders first-round draft pick is a natural centre but also a capable winger. The Oilers lineup, meanwhile, was already loaded down the middle and needed some firepower on the wings. The makeup of the roster heading into the season generated some talk that Strome could get an audition as a winger alongside reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid or 77-point scorer Leon Draisaitl. The hope, after all, was that such an opportunity would help propel the former junior scoring star towards a breakout season in the NHL.
What started out as hope and optimism quickly took a sharp turn in the opposite direction.
The Quick Unraveling
In hindsight, managing expectations should have been a major focus for not only Strome but the Oilers organization. All of the positive energy surrounding the club, combined with the fact that the team was widely considered to be among the top contenders for the 2018 Stanley Cup, made the crash down to reality that much harder for everyone in Alberta’s capital.
Unfortunately for the Oilers’ biggest offseason addition, the brunt of the blame landed on him and on general manager Peter Chiarelli’s reluctance to use the cap savings gained from trading Eberle and his $6 million cap hit.
Fast-forward just a month into the season and that initial buzz had already turned into chaos. The Oilers weren’t winning games and the former fifth-overall pick had managed just three points in nine games with his new team. Things came to a head when Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that the Oilers brass was disappointed in the Strome/Eberle swap and were open to finding him a new home.
Nine games into his Oilers career, Strome was already being shopped around the league. Nobody would be happy in that situation.
Finding a Role for Ryan Strome
Head coach Todd McLellan hasn’t found a regular spot for Strome among the club’s top-six forwards. The former 50-point scorer hasn’t seen much ice time alongside McDavid or Draisaitl either. Instead, he has been firmly entrenched as the team’s third-line centre with some second unit power play minutes thrown in.
Sheltered minutes against weaker competition should result in higher production but the points haven’t come easily for the fifth-year pro. The pivot endured an 11-game pointless streak after the Christmas break and went 21 games without scoring a single goal. Having the reputation as a one-dimensional forward and failing to find the back of net is recipe for disaster, especially in a hockey-mad market like Edmonton.
Despite the lengthy scoring drought, Strome has already matched his scoring total from last season and is remarkably producing at the best clip of his career since his sophomore season. Maybe too much was expected of Strome. After all, it’s not the player’s fault that he was traded for one of the team’s perennial leading scorers.
What Does the Future Hold?
It’s no secret that the Oilers will need cheap wingers who can gel with Draisaitl and McDavid as both of their big dollar contracts take over the team’s cap. Strome wasn’t considered a fit there as McLellan prefers him in the middle but could he ultimately replace the role held by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?
Nugent-Hopkins has a big ticket to be a third-line centre and Strome could fill that same role for half the price. There is the concern, however, that even his $3 million qualifying offer might be too rich for the Oilers to pick up. There’s always the possibility that the team and player can agree to a new deal at a lower cap hit but that’s not a guarantee. As it stands, Strome’s future in Oil Country is far from clear and is completely dependent on what happens with players above him on the depth chart.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) February 26, 2018
Should Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins make a permanent move to McDavid’s wing then the doors will open for Strome to again settle in as the third-line centre. The same logic applies if Nugent-Hopkins is used as trade bait to fill other holes on the Oilers’ roster. However, if the coaching staff prefers to run their big three centres again next season then Strome could be looking at another new start in 2018-19.
There’s still time for Strome to salvage his season and at least boost his value. In fact, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Strome and the Oilers as the forward is enjoying his most productive stretch of games this season. With eight points in his last seven games, could the centreman finally be settling in with his new surroundings or is this simply further evidence of a streaky scorer?
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.