Forward Ryan Gropp made the most of his overage season with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.
The 2015 second-round selection set career-highs across the board for the Thunderbirds in the regular season with 35 goals and 49 assists for a team-high 84 points in 66 games to help lead Seattle to its first WHL Championship.
"It was awesome," Gropp told NYRangers.com. "It was definitely something I'll never forget. To be able to win it with the group of guys we had … and for us to win in our last year and the way we did it [in overtime] was a special moment."
Gropp took the extra season in the WHL as a positive and said he wanted to approach it as an opportunity to be a player who "played in all situations," including on the penalty kill, an area that his head coach Steve Konowalchuk said he thrived.
"He became one of our best penalty killers," Konowalchuk said. "It was good to see. Sometimes the skill guys at the junior level sometimes don't take pride in the penalty killing," but that "it was something he wanted to do and focus on."
Gropp's bread and butter is clearly in the offensive zone, but said his compete level has greatly improved in the two years since the Blueshirts selected him 41st overall.
"My work ethic away from the puck and just being able to work hard to get the puck back," Gropp said before adding when he was younger he'd often wait for pucks and plays to develop.
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' director of player personnel, said that is an area all NHLers must be adept at to succeed at the highest level.
"In the NHL, you have to go get the puck," Clark said. "It isn't just about waiting for someone to get it to you. Ryan was going in and working in the corners and going for the puck. It's a physical game, it's battles. All that came together for him."
Gropp got off to a slow start to the season with just three goals in his first 16 games before turning it on around Thanksgiving, when he scored goals in three straight games from Nov. 25 through 30 and another three in two games in early December.
While Gropp cooled off with just three points the rest of the month, January began the best stretch of his junior career. The Kamloops, B.C.-native had points in five straight from Jan. 6 to 17, and then went on a career-best 16-game streak that saw Gropp register 14 goals and 21 assists for 35 points from Jan. 21 through Feb. 18. All told, Gropp went just three games in the regular season without a point after Jan. 6.
While he was held off the scoresheet on Feb. 19, Gropp then tallied off nine points in his next four contests before ending the season with a seven-game streak that saw him notch 10 points.
"I was really happy," Gropp said when asked for his assessment of how he finished out the season. He said after Christmas, games get tighter as teams jockey for playoff position, and it gave him confidence that he was playing his best hockey at crucial times.
"Make no mistake, he had an excellent season," Adam Graves said of Gropp, who had 19 points in 16 WHL playoff games. "He can skate and shoot as well as anyone in junior hockey. This year was a big, big year for him. He went back [to junior] and really worked on his game and I think it showed."
With his junior career in the books, Gropp now shifts his focus to turning pro next season, though he's trying to not overthink anything.
"It's in the back of your mind that you're turning pro and you're going to have to deal with those bigger and stronger guys," said Gropp, who added he will work towards getting stronger this summer. "You're going to have to take a big step."
Gropp got a taste of the pro game last year when he skated in one preseason game for New York, a game in which he registered an assist. He said he's hopeful the experience he gained during last year's camp pays off for him this year.
"That was huge," Gropp said of his exhibition game and his time at main camp. "Last year was huge. Seeing those guys and being on the same ice … and seeing how they get themselves ready for games.
"It was definitely huge for me" to get a preseason game in he added. "It was definitely a huge learning experience for me and I'll take that in this year's camp for sure."