Ryan Strome was peeling off his practice gear and packing up for the Rangers' flight to Edmonton on Monday afternoon, when he was reminded of one of the more memorable flights of his life -- same itinerary but in reverse.
It was back in mid-November of last year; Strome was getting on a plane with the Oilers to fly to their game in Calgary, when he was told to hop off: He was in the midst of being acquired by the Rangers, and rather than a short midday hop to Calgary he would have to go pack for a red eye that night to New York.
Back in Westchester, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton was talking over the trade he had just pulled off with the Oilers, grabbing Strome 1-for-1 in exchange for Ryan Spooner.
"I think he feels like, and we feel like, maybe there's a little bit more," Gorton said on the afternoon of the deal, "that he can still get to the level that we're all hoping he can get to."
Fast-forward 13½ months, and 101 games, and take a look at the level at which Strome is playing: Always a versatile forward, Strome has played the lion's share of this season as the Rangers' No. 2 center, which has given him the opportunity to be linemates on a nightly basis with Artemi Panarin. And he has seized that chance to the tune of 35 points in 38 games so far, second on the team behind only his left winger Panarin, with five of those points coming in the last two games alone.
For the first time in his NHL career he is a regular on both special-teams units, and this season he is averaging 19:34 on ice per night, a full four minutes more than he'd known through his first five-plus seasons in the League. He and Mika Zibanejad both are in the top 16 among NHL centers in points per game, Zibanejad at 1.20 and Strome at a career-best 0.92.
On the day of the trade Gorton said he believed his newest player "brings a little bit of everything." In retrospect, all Gorton did was bring in a very good player in a very good trade.
"It's been a real fun ride here for me personally," Strome said on Monday. "You can never see the future, but obviously when you get traded you want to make the most of the new situation. I just tried to do that."
Strome believed from day one that the change of scenery would do him some good, but there was one thing in particular he did not relish about the trade: Having to make the phone call to his fiancée, Sydney, to let her know that he'd been sent to New York. "Honestly I felt so bad for my fiancée at the time because she'd just got a promotion at work," Strome said. "I had to call her on the work phone because she wasn't answering (her cell), and she was like, 'I cannot believe you just got traded.' It was a whirlwind."
Not to worry, though, everything worked out: Sydney is now his wife, and both are flourishing since Ryan was transferred to his new workplace.
"As much as I think I've played good and the confidence has been there, I think a lot of it has been opportunity," Strome said. "A lot of it has been the coaches just trusting me, I think. Like you said, I've never played this much minutes in my life and I've never played this much special teams, so it's been fun. I think I've grown a ton as a person and as a player the last little while, and I've been counted on here."
Rarely more so than on Saturday night in Toronto, in which Strome logged 23:02, the second-highest total of his career, next to the game in Florida on Nov. 16 - the anniversary of the trade - in which he and Panarin turned in a remarkably identical 27:57, career highs for both players.
On Saturday he scored twice and added two assists, including the long outlet to Panarin to start the winning play. It was his eighth career multi-goal game and his first four-point game since New Year's Eve in 2014 and it was essential to the Rangers' 5-4 victory and a back-to-back sweep that, in Strome's postgame opinion, "changes the look of our season."
"He's meant an awful lot to us in a lot of ways," said David Quinn, who is Strome's fourth Head Coach in the NHL. "This all started last year -- I thought he had a real strong year for us last year. He's a good guy and he does a lot of good things. … He's smart, he makes good decisions with the puck and he's responsible defensively."
There is plenty, the Coach pointed out, for the Rangers to like off the ice, too. Strome arrived in New York as a 25-year-old approaching 400 games in the NHL; on the Rangers, the League's youngest team at the end of last season and one that has had eight players age 21 or younger see action this season, that qualifies Strome for veteran status, which is something he hadn't so much experienced before at the NHL level, but a role he tackles naturally with his outgoing personality.
"I mean, I think I have the fifth-most or something games played on the whole team, which is crazy -- it feels like yesterday I was on my entry-level and just trying to find my way," Strome said. "The circumstances here have been good for me. I like to keep things light and have some fun around the dressing room, and I think with the younger team, it gives me ability to have more of a personality and maybe help some young guys by just being myself."
"I think he's embracing that," Quinn said of Strome's leadership position. "He's very likable guy, and guys are drawn to him. So I think he does embrace that and enjoys that role, especially with our group and how we are so young."
Come Tuesday's game in Edmonton, Strome will have completed a sort of hat trick of games that have some extra personal resonance for him: On Friday against Carolina he skated in his 100th game in a Blueshirt, and scored the third-period goal that put away a 5-3 win; the following night he returned to his hometown and for the second time as a Ranger was named the game's First Star in Toronto. So the next thing to see is what he has in store when he faces his former mates in Edmonton on Tuesday night for the second time as a Ranger - "always fun to play against your old friends," Strome said.
Strome, though, is game for any opponent: Since arriving in New York he is the only Ranger not to miss a single match, and he never missed one in his 100 games as an Oiler, either. In fact, the last time he had to leave the lineup was in March in 2017 as an Islander, when he suffered a broken wrist at, of all places, Madison Square Garden.
It is a point of pride for him to play as best he can through injury, illness, fatigue - as it was on Nov. 17, 2018, when he stepped off the red eye in New York and suited up against the Panthers that night on Broadway for his Ranger debut, playing on "I don't even know if it was adrenaline - I was running on fumes," he said. "But I hate missing games."
It wouldn't be the Rangers' preference, either, given what Strome has meant, on and off the ice, to a group with youth everywhere in the lineup and notably down the middle. "He's got a great brain," Quinn said, "and when he's playing with a little bit of edge to him and a pace and he doesn't overthink it, he's a really good player. I think too often guys force offense, or have a play in mind when they get a puck, as opposed to just playing hockey.
"And when this guy plays hockey, he is very good."