On June 22, 2017, then-New York Islanders forward Ryan Strome was flying from Toronto to Chicago. He was supposed to meet his brother, Dylan, at O'Hare International Airport, and together, they were going to attend the NHL draft to cheer on their youngest brother, Matthew.
While surfing Twitter on the plane, Ryan saw that there had been a big trade involving the Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, but the players involved had not yet been notified. By the time Ryan landed, he learned it was him.
"He called me as soon as he landed," Dylan recalls. "He was nervous but excited for the opportunity."
Ryan had been a first-round draft pick -- No. 5 overall in 2011 -- for the Islanders. But after scoring 17 goals and 50 points in his first full season as a pro in 2014-15, he had struggled to meet expectations. Edmonton would mean a fresh start.
Ryan loved being an Oiler. "People like to trash-talk Edmonton, but I enjoyed my time there," he said. "We had a great group of guys." In summer 2018, he signed a two-year, $6.2 million extension. His now-wife, Sydney, got a great job in the city, and then earned a promotion. But Ryan got off to a sluggish start in 2018-19, scoring just one goal and one assist in his first 18 games. And he was on the move again.
"Ryan sent a message in our group chat: 'Traded, waiting to find out where to,'" Dylan said. "Because they didn't tell him where. We were all kind of shocked."
He soon learned it was back to New York, this time with the New York Rangers, in a one-for-one swap for the also-slumping Ryan Spooner. Ryan Strome's career was at a crossroads. Traded twice in three years, the 25-year-old was at risk of being categorized as a first-round bust. "For so many years I was the youngest guy on the team, and then all of the sudden you're one of the older guys," he said. "It's funny how quickly things turn and the situation is so different."
Strome knew that being on the Rangers while they transitioned in and out of a rebuild added an extra challenge. "It's no secret the Rangers are trying to get younger," he said. And so with just a year and a half before he would become a restricted free agent again, Strome needed to prove he could fit into New York's future equation.
He is making his case to stick this time.
Just 53 games in, Strome is six points shy of matching his personal high in points and should break 20 goals for the first time in his seven-year career. It coincides with increased responsibility; Strome is averaging 19:29 per night, up nearly four minutes from his career average, and is playing his natural position of center on a regular basis. (The Islanders and Oilers often played him at wing.) When top center Mika Zibanejad missed a month to injury, New York gave Strome top-line minutes for the first time in his career, after he'd been buried behind John Tavares and Connor McDavid in previous stops. Strome also developed chemistry with Artemi Panarin -- "We think the game the same way; he likes to play give-and-go hockey, and make a lot of plays," Strome said -- which cemented his value even further.
"It feels good to prove to people that you can actually do it. Not just that you have potential, but you can actually live up to it," Strome said. "My confidence is at an all-time high. This is the place I've felt the most at home, the most liked and wanted by the staff and the coaches. It's been reciprocated in my play, and I'd love to stay here awhile."
Strome feels he has grown as a player a lot this season; filling in for Zibanejad was especially eye-opening. "Playing on the top line meant every night you're going against [Patrice] Bergeron and [Steven] Stamkos. Every team is giving you their top guys, which only challenges you more."
He also has had time to reflect on his career. "Looking back now, I'm much more equipped to handle the ups and downs," he said. "I'm seeing it now with Kaapo Kakko. There's so much pressure on high draft picks to be good right away, even though they're so young. The expectations of fans, especially with social media, can be a lot. I think every player takes a different path; some guys pan out later than others. It doesn't mean you're a failure."
Strome said some of his lowest points with the Islanders came when he was sent down to Bridgeport in the AHL. It always meant a lot to him when Islanders players reached out to him. It reminded him that the world wasn't ending; it's just hockey. "A message like that, just letting me know that they were thinking of me, went a long way," he said.
Now he tries to do the same with the Rangers. If a guy is sent to the AHL, Strome often will message him: "Good luck -- I'm sure you'll be back soon."
In some ways, his career has mirrored that of his brother Dylan, who was also a top-five draft pick who got traded early in his career. While Dylan never truly found his stride in Arizona, he is thriving in Chicago. And like Ryan, Dylan is hoping this could be his last stop.
Ryan will be a restricted free agent this summer. He said his agent has not had contract talks with the Rangers. "With the [trade] deadline coming, there are a lot of moving parts," he said. "So we'll see what happens in the next couple weeks."
Strome's good first-half play may have driven up his value, but he's not worried about getting a call on trade deadline day. "After being traded twice now, it's nothing that I can't handle," he said. "But I definitely want to stay in New York. I'm comfortable here. And I finally feel like I've found a really good fit."
Emptying the notebook
• I mentioned the youngest Strome brother, Matthew, earlier. He was taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. I asked Dylan to give an update on how Matthew is doing.
"Started the year in Lehigh Valley [Pennsylvania] -- he's with their farm team in Reading now in the ECHL," Dylan said. "He's been down there a few weeks; hopefully he'll be back up soon. I think he's got a great future. He's a typical Philly-type player. He's big. He's rough and tough, like the Philadelphia type, but he also can score. He's gotta work on his skating a bit, but he's great player. [Matthew] got a lot of points in junior as well, and led his team to an OHL championship and was a big part of his team there. I think the Philly fans, when they see him, are going to love him."
• Sean Couturier came on the ESPN on Ice podcast on Wednesday and gave an update on teammate Oskar Lindblom, who is away from the team for the rest of the season as he battles a rare form of bone cancer. "I actually saw him last night," Couturier said. "Went over to Robert Hagg's place -- a few guys were there to try to hang out with him. He's been doing good, I think. We're trying to support him in every way we can. He's such a positive guy, such a nice guy. We're sure he'll fight through it."
• Ovi 700 watch will be on full effect this week, as the Capitals' captain sits at 698 career goals -- and could reach the milestone at home against the Islanders on Monday night, on the road against the Avalanche on Thursday or at the Coyotes on Saturday. After that, we'll be monitoring Alex Ovechkin's chase for Wayne Gretzky's career goal record (894). If Ovi keeps up his torrid pace -- he's on track for a 60-goal season -- it should come sooner rather than later.
Ovechkin has averaged 0.61 goals per game, which ranks fifth in NHL history (minimum 300 games played), including an NHL-best 0.59 rate since his 30th birthday on Sept. 17, 2015. Among players in the 700-goal club, only two scored at a rate of 0.5 goals per game or higher from the age of 30 onward: Phil Esposito at 0.57 and Marcel Dionne at 0.51.
What we liked this week
• The U.S. versus Canada women's game in Anaheim, California, drew 13,320 fans, the largest crowd ever to watch a women's hockey game in the U.S. America won the game 4-3, as Megan Bozek scored 42 seconds into overtime. The U.S. also won this year's series, 4-1. Kudos to the Anaheim Ducks, who did a heck of a job promoting the game. When it comes to women's sports, promotion matters.
• Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins might just be the best story in the NHL right now. NHL Network analyst and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes posted some interesting thoughts to Twitter. Weekes was the backup to Henrik Lundqvist during the King's rookie season. Weekes wrote: "Stylistically in the net, and in terms of early impact, Merzlikins reminds me of Lundqvist. It's a long road ahead, no doubt. But style, flare, technical, intensity, fire, performance -- very similar!"
• It has been lost a bit considering their plethora of injuries, but Evgeni Malkin is having a heck of a season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Malkin is riding a four-game point streak into Tuesday's game against the Lightning (which should be a must-watch matchup) and is averaging 1.39 points per game, his best mark since the 2011-12 season, when he won the Hart Trophy.
Nice gesture by Blues GM Doug Armstrong offering to fly Joel Edmundson's parents, Bob and Lois, to St. Louis from Manitoba for tomorrow night's game. They'll get to see their son receive his Stanley Cup ring on the Blues' dime. Very respectful of a mom/dad who supported the club.— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) February 3, 2020
• Could Raleigh be getting an outdoor game sometime soon? According to the News & Observer, Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell submitted a written request to the Centennial Authority, asking for the PNC Arena landlord to contribute $200,000 to 250,000 "to assist in landing an NHL Stadium series game next season." According to the report, the Canes said in the request that they'd expect 50,000 people to attend, and that "the game likely would be played January or February 2021 in N.C. State's football stadium if approved by the NHL. No potential opponent was named."
• We've noted before that the Detroit Red Wings have fared exceptionally well against the Montreal Canadiens this season. Add the Boston Bruins to that list. The Red Wings shocked the previously red-hot Bruins 3-1 on Sunday for their 14th win of the season. Half of Detroit's wins have come against the Atlantic Division this season, and of those seven wins, five have come against Montreal or Boston.
What we didn't like this week
• The Arizona Coyotes could be facing stiff financial penalties for illegal pre-draft testing. According to Darren Dreger of TSN, "There are at least 20 incidents of the Arizona Coyotes fitness testing draft-eligible players." Each violation can carry a fine of $250,000 or more. The league is investigating.
• The Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien are reportedly heading toward a divorce (Frank Seravalli of TSN had the news first), and it's sad to think of Big Buff's career in Winnipeg and maybe his NHL career period ending so unceremoniously.
Here's what Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler told reporters this week: "I think it's a very Buff way to do it. Buff has always marched to the beat of his own drum. He's the type of guy that when his mind's set on something, that's the way it is. So I think that's probably where it's at today. Like I said, the way he played for this organization for eight years is kind of where I've come back to. Especially when you don't have him. You just really appreciate how hard he played every single night and how much you missed him."
• Last month, former NHL defenseman Brandon Manning, now in the AHL with Bakersfield (California), was suspended five games for directing a racial slur at Ontario Reign forward Bokondji Imama. Manning has returned, and on Friday night he faced Imama for the first time since the incident. Things got heated, and Imama and Manning fought (Imama won). It was quite the night for Imama and the Reign. He recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick as Ontario won 10-3. If this game was in any way cathartic for Imama, good for him. It's just unfortunate that a circumstance like this had to exist to begin with.
Brandon Manning was suspended for using a racial slur against Boko Imama. In Manning's first game back, Imama destroyed him in a fight 😱👊 pic.twitter.com/5guTlP4UJe— Gino Hard (@Ginohard_) February 8, 2020
John Tavares, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs' captain scored five goals and recorded two assists in four games this week, including the winning goal in the waning seconds of overtime against the Ducks to preserve Jack Campbell's first win as a Toronto goalie.
Philipp Grubauer, G, Colorado Avalanche: The Avs goalie went 3-0 in three starts this week, allowing only three goals. That included a 31-save performance in a 2-1 win against the Blue Jackets in which Grubauer outdueled Merzlikins.
Mackenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey Devils: When a Devils goalie plays well, we've got to give him due credit. Blackwood posted shutouts in both of his starts this week (stopping 37 saves against the Kings and a wild 46 shots against the Flyers).
Games of the week
Did we mention that Ovi Watch can be tracked on ESPN+? Our streaming service is carrying each of the Caps' next three games. The Isles are looking to climb back into one of the Metropolitan Division playoff slots (they're atop the East's wild-card race now). They'll be monitoring the health of defenseman Ryan Pulock, who left Saturday night's game after absorbing a tough hit from Alex Killorn. The Isles can't afford to lose Pulock, especially since Adam Pelech is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
This game deserves your attention. Over the past month, the Lightning and Blue Jackets have the most points in the league (19). They've both done it with stingy defense, as they're the only two teams averaging fewer than two goals against per game in that span. (Columbus has a ridiculous 1.18 goals allowed average, while Tampa Bay is at 1.92.) Oh, and perhaps the best storyline: It's a rematch of last season's first-round series in which the Blue Jackets improbably swept the Lightning.
This game, being played at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium, should provide some pretty awesome optics, and I'm not just talking about Colorado's super-sharp special jerseys for the game.
Quote of the week
"I waited a long time, thought a lot about possibly never doing that again." -- Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns after scoring his first goal in nearly two years on Monday against Henrik Lundqvist. Johns had been sidelined for 22 months because of post-traumatic headaches.