After having big Game 1's in both playoff series this spring, Ryan Strome went cold and was scratched -- twice in the New York Islanders' six-game first-round win over the Florida Panthers and once in their five-game second-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. For a player who was sent back to AHL Bridgeport for a refresher earlier in the season, neither participation rate sounds extreme.
But he was a fifth-overall pick in 2011, he was a key offensive contributor in 2014-15, and his rocky year during what many expected would be a breakout sophomore season combined to make those scratches feel like five-alarm fires.
Some fans even thought, that's it, if it's not over already he should "do the Nino" and ask out. But as it happened and in the post-season reactions, Strome was having none of that.
In case there was any doubt about Strome's attitude toward the team -- or the coach -- in his guest appearance on the SNY podcast Arthur Staple [reference below begins around 18:50] of Newsday reiterated what had been reported in the playoffs, via a tale about their interaction when Strome was a scratch:
"Ryan Strome is a guy who...I certainly talked to him a lot throughout the course of the season. This is a kid who maybe, as a 22-year-old, has one of the best attitudes around, where he's upbeat, and what you see is what you get with him.
"I had a private conversation with him where he was chirping me for getting my haircut before Game 3...and he was sitting out, he was practicing on the 5th line and didn't know if he was going to be back in. And he said 'Hey, what are they saying on Twitter?' And I said 'Well, they think you should ask for a trade.' And he said 'Well then they don't know me very well.'
"He's a motivated guy. I think he knows a little complacency set in coming out of training camp. He certainly had opportunity early on playing with Tavares...being sent down was another wakeup call. ... Next year he [can't] need any more wakeup calls."
That echoes what Strome said on clear out day, including this as reported in the Post:
"I really haven't faced adversity like I have this year," said Strome, the team's No. 5 overall pick in 2011. "It's only going to make you a better player and a better person."
If there were any questions about Strome harboring resentment to the team or Capuano, he squashed it.
"Not at all," he said. "Even when I'm not playing, it's not fun and you're probably pretty upset deep down. But I'm always cheering the loudest when I'm not playing. I have the biggest Islander heart. I want to help this team win. That's all it's ever been."
More like that, in Staple's forwards review (part 1) in Newsday:
His words on breakup day last week were consistent with how he handled a difficult year. "Not at all," he said when asked if he'd changed his feelings about the organization. "It's going to drive me more this summer to be better and make sure they can't healthy scratch me ever again."
We'll see what comes next for Strome. At age 22 he was still the youngest regular on the team, and he should still be a few years away from his athletic peak.
For his own confidence and for fans' own hope, he can look to two seasons ago -- 50 points in 81 games and a sustainable 9.5% shooting percentage at age 20 -- as a sign of what he can do. And even if Jack Capuano will continue to be hard on him, and continue to be disappointed in the "little things" that are important to team cohesion and collective effort but do not show up in otherwise good underlying/possession stats, Capuano also has a history of escalating promising young players' roles as they age and mature.
During his demotion earlier in the season, Strome conceded that maybe he is the kind who needs the occasional kick in the butt. During the playoffs, it sounded like the kick was related to shortfalls in the proverbial "battle level":
"I guess last series (the message was) I had to be a little harder to play against," Strome said. "Points don't always tell the whole story about how things are going. But at the same time, I'm always confident in myself and always think that I can contribute and always think that I should."
For his part, Capuano wasn't piling on Strome, he was just chalking it up to tough playoff lineup, position and matchup decisions:
"The toughest thing…is telling guys they're not going to play, because we have guys on our team who've battled all year when guys have been out. "So the guys who aren't playing, there's no rhyme or reason why they're not in, it's just left-shot, right-shot, special teams. During the course of the year against the opposition, especially the team we're playing, what their stats were against that team. You look at all kinds of things, but it's tough."
(Josh Bailey was the guy who returned to the lineup for Game 3 -- in which he promptly scored twice -- though the Isles again made room for Strome for Games 4 and 5.)
So it's understandable that people are wondering if the scratches this year are signs of a potential parting of ways, especially when people remember Nino Niederreiter. But the difference is Nino was a malcontent and demanded out. Strome has had the opposite reaction, and in fact he has company among Isles youngsters who have been scratched -- including in the playoffs -- only to rebound.
One of them, Anders Lee, still got a big contract extension that same year and was such an important piece that he was sorely missed when a broken leg took him out this spring.
As the Islanders face the prospect of getting even thinner on right wing with the expected free agent departure of Kyle Okposo, the opportunity is still very much there for Strome. And it sounds like he still very much wants to claim it.