Ryan Strome was seen as a late bloomer, or at least a late riser, heading into the 2011 NHL Draft, but the New York Islanders' decision to select him with the fifth overall pick showed they expect more than pleasant surprises from the Niagara IceDogs center.
In a franchise prospect pool that ranks in the top 10 of the league or higher on most lists, Strome is the most important piece. If Strome reaches his ceiling, he becomes a key second center and 1-2 punch with John Tavares as well as another dangerous power play weapon. In that scenario, the Islanders' other centers in the pipeline can fight out who wins a pivot job and who converts to wing, perhaps even riding shotgun with Tavares or Strome one day.
If he doesn't meet expectations, or if Strome becomes "just" a scoring winger, then the Islanders would be stuck where so many teams are: Looking for that second dangerous offensive center to complement their star.
Strome's had an interesting path to get to this level of hype. As alluded above, the expectations to become a top 10 pick weren't always there.
His original OHL team, the Barrie Colts, traded him midway through his rookie year for hot St. Louis Blues prospect Alex Pietrangelo. Rather than jar him as the eventual OHL finalist sent him packing, Strome ran with the opportunity Niagara presented:
"It seems like yesterday I was in Barrie and I got traded," he told the Barrie Examiner last winter. "I was a little bit unsure of my future and I just kept working hard and kept reminding myself of what I was here to do, and the confidence I had in myself."
The following season was where he really took off, putting up 106 points for the third-most in the OHL. His draft ranking rose from the teens at mid-season to a sure top-10 selection by June.
Known offensively for his good hands and a sharp wrist shot and one-timer, Strome has used the time since the draft to focus on his defensive game. He came away from his first Islanders camp realizing there were more ways to measure his success than simply by points [the following quote is from the same Barrie interview]:
"There's a lot of aspects to my game that I feel a lot more comfortable at," he added. "I'm playing at both ends of the ice and I think that's the biggest thing I've learned so far."
[Coach Marty] Williamson points out that whenever Strome comes into the office to meet with the coaching staff, a great deal of his talk centres around his defensive game.
"If there's a switch down low where he goes to the wing position, he's very conscious about how to play the wing now," Williamson said. "Ryan's a pro. He wants to be a good pro and he's really starting to learn all the aspects of the game and, again, that's why we like him so much."
"My coach didn’t like when I fought this year, but I’ve always had a gritty side to me. I have a lacrosse background, so it’s kind of where I came from. I like to play a gritty game and I’m not going back down from anyone."
Strome cut back to just two fights in 2011-12 according to his HockeyFights.com fight card, and you'd expect even less at the NHL level. But there will probably come a day where he's led into a middleweight fight in the NHL, too.
Anyway, in 2011-12 Strome had the benefit of playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship (something he may repeat this year) and featuring in a long playoff run with the IceDogs. Fans could see from his appearance and role during this past summer's Islanders prospect camp, his second, that he's matured and filled out a little more:
If the NHL lockout keeps him in juniors all year long -- not a certainty, according to one post-lockout scenario -- then he'll have to make the most of it even if that level is probably a little beneath him by now. The hope is at this time next year he won't need a pit stop in AHL Bridgeport on his way to the NHL.
For the Islanders' top prospect, the expectations will truly mount in October 2013.