Ryan Strome turned 21 on Friday, right in the middle of the Islanders' prospect camp. So age-wise, he certainly was not out of place among the draft picks younger than him or the college free agents older than him.
But Strome being in and around Nassau Coliseum all week seemed a bit odd: He attended three of these summer camps already and stood out in last July's Blue-White scrimmage. So even though he wasn't participating in the same on-ice drills as current first-round picks Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang, perhaps it was a little presumptuous of the Islanders front office to ask Strome to come down from Toronto for the week?
Really, though, the reason he was among the kids again was simply a reminder to Strome, the Isles' 2011 first-round pick and widely regarded top young player: Nothing is given. With 16 forwards under contract and two months until the real training camp begins, Strome understands quite well that his status in the organization means nothing once September rolls around.
"[Having all the forwards] makes for good competition, but at the end of the day I have to worry about myself," Strome said last week during a break from his small-group drills and off-ice work. "Ultimately, wanting to make the team is one thing, and the next thing is wanting the team to be competitive. I really haven't looked at it from the selfish side. It's more, the team's going to be better and hopefully I can be here to contribute. I feel like I can be and I feel like I will be."
Strome had two separate tastes of NHL life last season and they were very different. He spent the first two months of the 2013-14 season piling up points in Bridgeport, earning rookie of the month honors before getting recalled on Dec. 11, at the end of a particularly dismal Islanders road trip.
He had a goal and three assists in 15 games. The Isles went 11-3-1 in that stretch, but beyond his first NHL goal in a 7-3 rout of the Stars, there weren't many memorable moments.
"I thought he played safe, a little scared to make a mistake," coach Jack Capuano said. "It's natural, even for a talented guy like Ryan. But he understood what he needed to do."
Strome went back to Bridgeport after a month, primarily so he could be eligible to play during the Olympic break but also to realize what he needed to do once he returned.
He came back right after the break to a team in disarray, headed for the draft lottery and without its top three scorers. In that ugly environment, Strome rose to the occasion, going 6-8-14 in those final 22 games with very respectable advanced metrics -- some of those games he centered pluggers Matt Martin and Colin McDonald, which certainly helps his cause as a player who doesn't need top-line skill around him to produce.
That might have seemed to assure him a slot for 2014-15. But Strome, a natural center, now has Frans Nielsen and Mikhail Grabovski occupying the center slots behind John Tavares. He played wing for a bit in both Bridgeport and the Island and that may be where he best fits in a crowded group now.
"It doesn't really change and I don't know what to expect," Strome said. "I played center most of my time here and then the last week I played wing and I thought I played pretty well. Things change and being versatile is obviously an advantage. Whatever they have in mind, I'm prepared for."
It's the right attitude to have. The only one, really.
"The guys who play best are going to be there opening night, period," Capuano said. "Ryan knows that. He came down for a week and I think it shows he's committed. Now we'll see in September."