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Isles top picks took two very distinct paths

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Millions of kids around the world play hockey throughout their childhood with the ultimate dream of making it to the National Hockey League. But only a small percentage of these players will ever make it through the elite leagues to be one of the 210 lucky athletes drafted by an NHL franchise each year.

Being selected in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft says something about the high-caliber talent of a player and their potential to become a star. Islanders prospects Ryan Strome and Scott Mayfield fit that bill to the tee.

Strome, a centerman, was selected by the Islanders fifth overall last month. Prior to the 2010-11 season, Strome was not ranked very high, but his sophomore season with the Niagara IceDogs proved to be a lucrative one. That time in the Ontario Hockey League was marked by tremendous development.

“I envisioned myself here since I was young, but it didn’t really become a reality until probably this year,” Strome said. “Last year was a little bit tough for me, but once I got my feet wet this year and got my confidence back, there was no doubt in my mind that I was a good player and that I was able to do everything that I wanted to do.”

The Mississauga, ON native increased his offensive output by nearly 400 percent, potting 106 points (33 goals, 73 assists) during the 2010-11 season. That superb season won him the Most Improved Player and Best Playmaker awards, as recognized by a poll of OHL Eastern Conference Coaches.

“It was pretty humbling to earn that respect from the coaches around the league,” Strome said. “It was a nice feeling to know that I came a long way and that they saw I improved. There are a lot of good players in the league. To be named one of those was very exciting and a huge honor for me.”

Strome struggled during his first season in the OHL, though. Initially, on a very talented Barrie Colts team, he didn’t get the playing time he was hoping for. Then, midway through the 2009-10 season, he was traded to Niagara, completing his rookie campaign with 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) in 61 games.

“For me, (the trade) was good,” Strome said. “I got to move on and I got to play a lot more. Barrie was such a good team that I was kind of stuck and wasn’t playing too much. When I moved, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Prior to his junior career, Strome first laced up the skates at the tender age of three. He went on to play three years of what he referred to as “paperweight” hockey, but it more commonly known in the United States as a house league. From there, he played two years at the novice level before playing seven years of AAA hockey for the Toronto Marlies.

In reality, Strome said Mississauga is built to breed hockey stars.

“Really, everything (in Mississauga) is hockey-oriented,” Strome said. “I play road hockey, ice hockey, summer hockey, you name it. It was good for me. There are so many rinks around that it’s easy to get better because there are so many opportunities open for your development.”

The self-described playmaker and set-up man is excited about his future with the Islanders. His fellow Mississaugans and gym-mates, John Tavares and Matt Moulson, have told him a lot about the organization and have given him plenty of advice heading into mini-camp this week.

Selected by the Islanders 34th overall, Mayfield is Strome’s second-round counterpart. Unlike Strome, Mayfield hasn’t had much experience playing at the elite level. Instead, he chose to play for his hometown team with his friends in St. Louis and then went on to play his freshman year for his high school team.

Having just graduated high school this past month, Mayfield’s career as a defenseman truly took off in the last three years.

“It has been a huge up-hill climb,” Mayfield said. “It went really fast, especially with the draft this year. It was just a big step for me in hockey and I’ve kind of dedicated everything to it. I played one year of AAA right before I came to Youngstown. I always played high school, AA hockey and just had fun with my buddies, but after my freshman year of high school I started taking hockey more seriously.”

Even though his career path wasn’t typical, Mayfield says he’s wanted to play in the NHL since childhood.

“It was always my dream, but when I was little, I just played around with my buddies for fun,” Mayfield said. “I wasn’t really working out. I wasn’t really pushing to play pro. Of course I said that (I wanted to), but until the past two years, I never really thought about it in realistic terms.”

After his sophomore year of high school and one year of AAA hockey, Mayfield moved away from home to Youngstown, OH to play for the Phantoms in the United States Hockey League where he was coached by Curtis Carr. While he was there, he learned skills which would take his game to a whole new level.

“I was thrown in to the mix with a lot of playing time right away, being an expansion team,” Mayfield said. “Kids are going to make mistakes their rookie year in any league and I think I made mistakes, but I was still put out there, which was nice. Then, my second year, I played an incredible amount, which helped me a lot.”

The self-described physical defenseman will continue his hockey career at the University of Denver, where his father attended law school. Now that he’s been selected by the Islanders, Mayfield is even more thrilled with his choice in colleges and hopes that Denver will help him improve his offensive game.

“The connection the Islanders have with Denver is huge,” Mayfield said. “They have two players (Rhett Rakhshani and Matt Donovan) signed right now from there, which is huge for me. I’m loving (my choice) right now.”

Mayfield and Strome will both be suiting up for the Islanders Blue and White Scrimmage & Skills Competition on Saturday.
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