Ryan Strome passed a fairly important milestone on Friday, even if he might not have been aware.
Strome played his 160th NHL game in the Islanders’ 5-2 win over the Senators, which means he is no longer is waiver-exempt. It also means he can’t be sent to the AHL without repercussions, as he was for three weeks in November after a slow start to the season for the 22-year-old.
There’s no indication Strome was in any danger of being sent back to Bridgeport, given that he’s been riding shotgun with John Tavares again for the past two weeks. But playing alongside the captain, as Strome did to start the season, comes with a lot of responsibility.
“And he couldn’t sustain it, to be honest,” Jack Capuano said of Strome’s early season struggles while playing with Tavares and Brock Nelson. “When you play with elite players, you’re getting the other team’s best and you have to be tough to play against, every shift, every game.
“I think Ryan realizes that now.”
Strome had a goal and four assists in 12 games before he was sent down on Nov. 6. He’s had four goals and eight assists in 23 games since his return, a 0.52 points per game pace that’s more in line with his career rate of 0.56.
More than the points, though, Strome is playing with more of an edge. Stronger on the puck, stronger without it and showing the feistiness he showed during his breakout season in 2014-15.
“I think I’ve gotten a little of my swagger back,” Strome said. “Playing with Johnny and Grabo [Mikhail Grabovski], we’ve generated a ton of chances and we frankly should have a few more goals. It’s just about the consistency game to game and I think I understand what it takes.”
Some may wince a bit at the tough love Strome appears to get from Capuano and the Isles organization over some other players, but it’s a fact of life for the only Isles regular still on his entry-level deal.
Now, having hit that magical mark of 160 games, Strome can breathe a little easier.
As the saga involving Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin gets messier and the Islanders continue to ponder whether they need an upgrade among their top-end forwards, one might wonder if there’s a match.
Garth Snow has checked in with Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, according to a couple sources, but the asking price for Drouin may be too steep. Having juggled high draft picks the past few seasons, Snow seems loath to part with his 2016 first-rounder for immediate help and he’s already moved his second-rounder as part of the Johnny Boychuk trade.
Tampa Bay is rumored to be searching for a prospect or an NHLer on an entry-level deal in return for Drouin and the Isles don’t want to part with Mathew Barzal, currently the top prospect in their system.
It seems far more likely that Snow will search for depth help without altering the current Isles roster in a meaningful way. Adam Pelech’s season-ending injury leaves the Isles thin behind their top six defensemen and they learned a hard lesson last spring when pressed for bodies in the playoffs.
And a low-risk addition to the forward group could help jumpstart some of the sluggish scoring.
One place to find answers to both of those issues is the Maple Leafs, who have played valiantly but are down in 13th in the East, 11 points out of a playoff spot.
Defenseman Roman Polak, who plays with the requisite edge and is in the final year of his contract, could be a fit. So could former Islander PA Parenteau, who has resurrected his career with 23 points, has chemistry with Tavares and is on a one-year deal.
As for whether Snow will break up the Islanders’ core and try to move Travis Hamonic (trade request) or Kyle Okposo (pending free agent), that seems farfetched before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
The Isles’ current 3-0-1 run and 7-4-1 stretch over the past month has them looking more like last year’s squad of possession and shot monsters. They are now nearly 50 percent in corsi and are averaging as many shots on goal as shots against (30.3) after running a shot deficit the entire season.
One number that’s still tops for the Islanders: Hits. They entered Saturday’s games with a 118-hit lead over the second-place Senators.