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Islanders' Strome impressing at both ends of ice

by Brian Compton / New York Islanders

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders knew they were getting a gifted offensive player when they used the fifth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft to select forward Ryan Strome.

But Strome's ability to play a solid two-way game is what has made his first full season in the NHL so impressive.

Heading into their game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, CITY), Strome ranks third on the Islanders with 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists) in 69 games. He leads New York with a plus-19 rating.

"Plus/minus is a bit of a stat that's tough," Strome said. "I don't think it's a real great indication of a lot of things, but anytime you have good numbers I guess you just take it and roll with it. It's not really on my mind too much, but obviously you want be on for more [goals] than against."

Strome made his debut with the Islanders last season and did not look out of place, scoring seven goals with 11 assists in 37 games. New York was successful with Strome was in the lineup too; the Islanders, who finished 14th in the Eastern Conference, were 21-11-5 when he played.

The Islanders (43-23-4) trail the Canadiens, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning by one point for first place in the Eastern Conference.

"It's a lot of fun coming to the rink," Strome, 21, said. "We have a great team in here, and we're an even better group of guys, so it's a lot of fun. It's going to be fun down the stretch here. I think we're all looking forward to the playoffs. It's going to be a lot of our first times, or for some of us at least, so it should be good. It's something we're looking forward to. It's a lot of fun winning. This is what you prepare for all season."

Strome had some familiarity with the Islanders the moment he was drafted. He began working out with John Tavares as a 15-year-old at the Athlete Training Centre in their hometown of Mississauga, Ontario. Since then, Strome has leaned on Tavares while becoming accustomed to life in the NHL.

"He's just a great role model and a good friend and a person to talk to," Strome said. "I like to think I think the game like he does. I think to have that similarity and be able to talk about plays in the game, I think that's been a huge thing for me. When we watch our games again or we watch other games on TV, just little plays, it's good to have a hockey mind like that. I'm striving to be what he is, so that's a great role model to have."

Tavares, 24, was the first pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and was named Islanders captain prior to the 2013-14 season.

"You always talk and you communicate, and I think for him, too, it's just going through the experience and maybe what it was like for me," Tavares said. "You help in any way you can, but at the same time I think everyone has their own process and how they go through things. His [road to the NHL] has been a little similar to mine. When I'm there if he needs any advice, or wants to ask any questions to not just me but any of the guys, [we're here to help]."

Strome has spent much of this season on a line with Anders Lee and Brock Nelson; the three first crossed paths while playing for Bridgeport in the American Hockey League.

Nelson has 18 goals and 21 assists in 70 games, and Lee was the NHL's Rookie of the Month for February when he had seven goals and eight assists in 15 games.

"It's incredible. [Ryan's] such a young guy," said Lee, a Calder Trophy candidate with 23 goals. "Just in the last two years getting to know him and seeing him as a player progress, it's incredible. He's going to have a fantastic career. He's fun to play with. The way he sees the ice and makes plays, it really helps complement with me. We both try to bring a lot of energy to the game and just go out there and work hard."

Islanders coach Jack Capuano said has pushed Strome to become a better two-way player.

"He's done some good things, but he knows his play away from the puck has got to be better and we're on him all the time about that. That's the one area," Capuano said. "We know he's got the offensive instincts and he's very creative, but he's got exposed a few times, which is a good thing. I think as a young player you learn from that. He's definitely learning.

"We didn't expect some of these guys to be in our lineup at the start of the year. I give them credit. They've worked extremely hard and they've made an impact on our hockey club this year."

Lee is 24 years old, and Nelson is 23.

"When you look at [Ryan] and how Brock and Anders have played, the only other teams I can think of with that kind of young impact is maybe Calgary and Tampa Bay," Tavares said. "To have those guys play at such a high level at such a young age, it bodes well for us this year and obviously for many years ahead."

Strome scored 97 goals in three full seasons with the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League and 49 points in 37 AHL games last season.

"His skill set and the way he sees the ice is pretty special," Tavares said. "His ability to think the game and find the open areas and be able to read the play is at a very high level. I think when you saw him come up last year, he just had to get to the middle of the ice a little bit more, and maybe not always trying to look for that guy just because of how good teams are defending and tracking back and picking up the late man. You see him now behind the net, around the net, in the middle of the ice making a lot of plays. He's shooting the puck and being a dual threat that way, so it's been great for his game. He's so smart that he's going to adapt. I think you're certainly seeing that."

There could be another Strome in the NHL as early as next season. Ryan's younger brother, Dylan Strome, has 116 points (39 goals, 77 assists) in 63 games for the Erie Otters in the OHL. He's expected to be a top-10 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.

Ryan said he speaks with his brother at least a couple of times per week.

"He's having fun and they're winning a lot of hockey games there," Strome said. "He's busy, and I know the stress of a hockey season in a draft year, so he's taking it all in stride.

"He's such a smart kid and he's so mature, beyond what I was [at that age]. He's just learning from that with my experiences and just going through it himself, he doesn't really ask too much. I just tell him to keep it even-keel. I think he's having a lot of fun."

Will his younger brother go higher than No. 5, and if so, will there be some verbal jabbing?

"I don't know. Hopefully [it's] just a good situation," Strome said. "He's already surpassed me in a lot of things. I like being the underdog anyways.

"He's a left-handed shot and a lot bigger than I am (Ryan is 6-foot-1, 196; Dylan is 6-foot-3, 187). I think he's a bit more of a natural scorer than I am. He's good around the net. Not that he's not a great passer, but I think he's got a great shot, a real deceptive scorer. I think if there's a little bit of a difference [between us], that might be it."

About seven months from now, there's a chance Ryan will play against Dylan in the NHL.

"That's kind of crazy to think about," Ryan said. "Obviously it's quite the journey to get here. I hope he gets here as quick as he can. That'll be really fun, for sure."

For now, Strome's main concern is helping the Islanders secure home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Six months ago, he was trying to make their roster. Though he's still working out the kinks, he's been an integral part of their success.

"I think I still have a long ways to go," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself and I'm pretty hard on myself. I think at times I've been good, but I know I can get better and I'm going to be better. It's all part of the learning process. I just want to continue on that upward trend."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

Author: Brian Compton | Deputy Managing Editor

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