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Islanders' young players benefiting from patience

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- During the first half of the 2013-14 season, Ryan Strome had to watch and wait for his NHL dream to come true.

Every other player selected in the top 10 of the 2011 NHL Draft had reached the League. The New York Islanders preached patience and sent Strome, the No. 5 pick, to Bridgeport, Conn., for further development in the American Hockey League.

No player's path to the NHL and success at the highest level is ever the same. Strome may have had to wait a little longer than some of his peers, but he's now a top-line forward for a 101-point team and a key contributor for a franchise on the rise.

"It feels like my road was a little longer," Strome said. "I just wanted to do the right thing and they wanted to do the right thing for me. It was frustrating at times, watching the other guys play in the NHL, but all in all it is about the big picture and our team is in the playoffs my first full year. I think things have worked out pretty well.

"I took a little bit of time to develop. I don't think I was quite ready. It was frustrating to see at the time, but looking back at it, it was probably the best thing."

The Islanders have been trying to build a Stanley Cup-contending roster around center John Tavares, and they've remained committed to drafting and developing players even in the face of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs every year but one since 2007.

General manager Garth Snow, sensing the puzzle was almost complete, struck this summer with a flurry of moves, adding goaltender Jaroslav Halak, forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, and, most importantly, defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on the same day just before the season began. Those moves helped make the Islanders a deeper team, and Snow will earn strong consideration for GM of the Year because of them.

The work by Snow and his staff on draft day should be a highlight of his resume. Yes, Halak, Leddy and Boychuk have been a big part of New York's success, but homegrown forwards Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee have become quality regulars this season and make the Islanders as deep up front as any team in the Eastern Conference.

"I think they've done a nice job developing quite a few guys and it is starting to pay dividends," Nelson said. "It is nice to have a few other young guys around to go through this at the same time. It is nice to see those guys chip in and be big parts of the team and the team winning. It is a credit to everyone involved in the process.

"Maybe it didn't happen overnight or as fast as some people might have wanted, but I think it has worked out."

Strome and Nelson combined for one postseason game before helping the Islanders defeat the Washington Capitals 4-1 in Game 1 of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series Wednesday at Verizon Center.

Nelson scored the first goal and had an empty-net goal. Strome scored the first of three straight by the Islanders, a strike he had something of a premonition about.

As the story goes, which was confirmed by Tavares and Strome, the 21-year-old told his linemate and captain he was going to score before they lined up for a faceoff Tavares won cleanly. Strome collected the puck and rifled a shot into the net.

"I don't even remember what I said. I just told him I was going to score," Strome said. "He looked at me and I knew it was in and he was just sort of laughing. We had a good laugh. I guess when you call 100 of them and you get one it feels good."

Tavares was ready to be an NHL star from the moment he put on an Islanders jersey, but they had to be more patient with others. Josh Bailey and Nino Niederreiter also came up early, and each forward went through the pains of trying to develop at the NHL level.

The Islanders have taken a more measured approach since then, and Strome, Nelson and Lee have benefited. They are trying to do the same with a collection of elite prospects percolating in the system: defensemen Ryan Pulock and Griffin Reinhart, and forward Michael Dal Colle.

New York had seven forwards reach 40 points this season, and Strome, Nelson and Lee were among them. When Kyle Okposo and Grabovski each missed a chunk of the season, those three helped absorb those losses.

Strome has graduated to the top line with Tavares and Kulemin.

"I think [Strome] has such a great feel for the game, he thinks the game so well, just knows where to be and he makes plays," Tavares said. "He finds the open man, he finds open space, and he's done a good job transitioning from being a natural center to the wing.

"He's using his body a lot more. You can see his game has really evolved over the season. There's no surprise he's going to be a very good player for us not only in this series, but hopefully for a long time."

Tavares and Strome live near each other in the offseason and share a skating coach. Strome said they get into some pickup games together, but otherwise he enjoys non-hockey things as much as anything in the summer.

It's a bond the Islanders could reap benefits from for years to come.

"It makes it great when you can to talk with each other," Strome said. "He's a big role model for one but also one of my better friends. It makes it easier for me. Obviously he's a top-five player in the League, and it is so great to get to play with him. I feel lucky every day. I just try to match his work ethic and hopefully pucks keep going in."

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