The incongruous sight of Ryan Strome, NHL rookie, walking down the street outside Tampa Bay Times Arena with an armful of hockey sticks and his equipment bag over his shoulder told a bit of a story.
The plain fact was that Strome had just gotten the news that he was headed back to Bridgeport of the AHL. A little more than a month after arriving with some fanfare -- he was leading the AHL in scoring when he was called up on Dec. 10 -- he was leaving with rather less circumstance, walking his own gear to a waiting cab to the airport, bound for the minors.
But there was another, hidden factor at work beyond Strome's struggles, with just a goal and three assists in 15 games.
A rule in the collective bargaining agreement, outlined in a memo to all 30 NHL clubs before this season began, holds that all players, waiver-exempt or not, who play in at least 16 of the last 20 games before the Olympic break cannot be assigned to the AHL during the break.
Strome had played in eight of that 20-game span for the Islanders before they break on Feb. 8. Couple that with him not forcing the Islanders to keep him with his play and GM Garth Snow decided this was the best course of action before tonight's game with the Lightning here.
"The development of all our young players is important," Snow told Newsday. "[Strome] needs to play during the break."
Strome could have played seven more games before this decision needed to be made, but Snow and Jack Capuano decided to send down Strome now, with three of the next four games on the road, where opposing teams can match up how they wish against the 20-year-old center.
"It's not a demotion of any kind," Capuano said. "The D are bigger and stronger here, the forwards track a lot harder and you don't have the same time and space. The fact that he recognizes those things, his attention to detail and his willingness to get better, that's what I like about Ryan. He knows he's got to get stronger to play down low, away from the puck. It's a process and it's good for his development to continue to play."
The Islanders also needed a roster spot to activate Radek Martinek (back) off injured reserve. Travis Hamonic is out with a suspected concussion and the team needed a seventh defenseman for Thursday.
Depending on Hamonic's health, Strome could be back by the end of next week to have another crack at the NHL game. By then, he'll be eligible to play the six AHL games during the 18-day break, plus the AHL All-Star Game, to which Strome was named last week.
"As we move forward," Capuano said, "he's going to have a bigger role on our club. No question."