Ryan Strome, No. 1 center?
In the absence of Mika Zibanejad, who missed his seventh straight game Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers had performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Coach David Quinn’s group somehow had found a way to go 4-1-1 — against some top-level opponents — without Zibanejad before they took on the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins Tuesday.
And Strome, the 26-year-old, former No. 5 overall pick by the Islanders, was a major reason why.
“He's done a really good job,’’ Quinn said of Strome, who entered Tuesday’s game as the team’s second-leading scorer, with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 15 games. “’Stromer's taken advantage of his opportunity and that line's been productive, offensively.’’
Playing the middle between star left wing Artemi Panarin and defensively solid right wing Jesper Fast, Strome accumulated eight points (three goals, five assists) in the six games Zibanejad had missed before Tuesday. He seemed to have found an instant chemistry with Panarin, the $81.5 million free-agent import who has been the team’s most dynamic player and leading scorer (8 goals, 10 assists, 18 points, in 15 games).
The 6-1, 193-pound Strome, who the Rangers acquired from the Edmonton Oilers a year ago in a one-for-one trade last Nov. 16 for Ryan Spooner, said this latest stretch is the best of his career, from an offensive standpoint. And when asked about clicking so quickly with Panarin, he said he’s simply playing his game.
“I think maybe in the past one of my faults was, I changed my game too much, based on who I was playing with,’’ Strome said this week. “I can't remember who exactly I was with before, [it was on the third line, with Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux], but I think I had a couple of pretty good games. And I just said to myself, 'Just play the same way. Demand the puck when you're open, and move the puck when you see a guy open. Don't overthink it.’ ’’
When training camp began, Strome started out on the wing as Quinn tried to see if 20-year-old Filip Chytil was up to the task of being the team’s No. 2 center behind Zibanejad. When Chytil showed little in the preseason, Strome moved to the middle and became the No. 2 center. But he struggled early on and was demoted to the third line, where he started to play better.
Quinn moved Strome back to the second line in the Oct. 24 game against Buffalo, and he had two goals in the Rangers’ 6-2 victory. The next game, against Boston, Quinn decided to split up Panarin and Zibanejad, and put Panarin with Strome and Buchnevich. Zibanejad got hurt in that game, and the game after that on Oct. 29 against Tampa Bay, Strome was the acting No. 1 center, playing with Panarin and Fast. Strome had a goal and an assist, and the Rangers won, 4-1. He’s been the top line center since.
Quinn — who, for the record, said he’s dying to get Zibanejad back — said his faith in Strome began with how well he played at the end of last season, when he had a career high 19 goals, 18 of which came in 63 games with the Rangers after the trade.
“I liked a lot of what he did last year, and he put himself in a position this year to assume more responsibility,’’ Quinn said. “And he just continues to take advantage of his opportunities. It's not just the points, I love the way he's playing in all three zones, and he's a big reason why we've been able to withstand losing Mika.’’