Saturday night was a long time coming for Ryan Strome. Longer than the 20-year-old would have liked before making his NHL debut, but that's pretty typical for a highly skilled high draft pick.
Although he and the Islanders were held scoreless Saturday night, what Strome has done to make that debut happen is perhaps what is most impressive. He's had very few coaches since he began playing organized hockey, but many of those who have coached him say the same thing: Strome is a very talented young man who is willing to do whatever it takes to get better.
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"That's what I love about him,'' said John Tavares, who is only three years older than Strome but has become something of a mentor.
The two Toronto natives work out together in the offseason. Strome came through the Toronto Marlboros minor hockey program, same as Tavares, and there was a hope that Strome could continue to emulate Tavares after GM Garth Snow selected Strome fifth overall in the 2011 draft.
"I feel like they have a lot of the same qualities,'' said Marty Williamson, who coached Strome for 31/2 seasons with Niagara of the Ontario League. "I coached John in a world under-17 tournament, and even then, with all the things he had to deal with, he could be a mature young man with the media and on the ice and then he was a kid off it, able to have fun and fit into the locker room.
"Ryan's just a hockey geek, plain and simple. He still follows our games and texts me about them. I've never seen a kid so excited to be around the game.''
Strome's eagerness has translated into some bumpy moments, especially before the shortened season a year ago. He was 19, too young for the AHL and perhaps over the OHL, but the lockout meant none of the Islanders' prospects would have a full training camp.
Strome's stay with the Islanders was brief in January, and he went back to Niagara.
"We had quite a few talks,'' Williamson said. "It's hard for a 19-year-old to understand those kinds of situations, but he accepted it. It didn't take him long to realize he could still make an impact with his play.''
Despite missing 15 games, Strome finished sixth in the OHL in scoring. He managed to get in 10 games with Bridgeport after Niagara was bounced from the playoffs, getting his feet wet in the Islanders' organization.
"That time was huge for me,'' Strome said. "To be able to get a taste of what it's like in the pros, what was being asked of me, it really helped this season.''
Even without much room among the veteran forwards in training camp this season, Strome didn't pout when he was sent down to Bridgeport. His back-to-back player of the week awards before his recall weren't the product of his pure offensive skill; they were more about the development of his game.
"There are guys who can have a so-so night and come up with three points at this level,'' Sound Tigers coach Scott Pellerin said. "That wasn't what Ryan was doing. He was playing complete games. That's why he got the call.
"He's a unique player in that I'll sit down to show him some video and after a second, he'll go, 'I know exactly what I did there.' He's got the ability to recall parts of his game and understand why he did or did not do what he needed to do.''
Had he made his debut on Thursday night in Phoenix, it might have been without the proper fanfare. His parents didn't make the trip out, and Williamson, one of his closest confidants, would have been busy coaching Niagara against Erie -- where, as it happens, Strome's kid brother Dylan is starting to make a name for himself as an OHL rookie and 2015 draft-eligible center. His parents and youngest brother, Matthew, were on hand Saturday night.
"He's going to make his mistakes, like every young player,'' Jack Capuano said. "But I think he's going to help the team.''
Not exactly savior talk, but Strome is not here to singlehandedly turn around this Islanders season. But if the work he's put in the last few seasons is any indication, Strome will have an impact.