Sum­mer ac­qui­si­tion play­ing cen­tre … for now

The Province - - SPORTS - JIM MATHESON jmath­e­son@post­media.com @NHLbyMatty

It was a fore­gone con­clu­sion that Jor­dan Eberle would wind upon the New York Is­landers’ top line along­side John Tavares, the team’s star and cap­tain.

Then there’s the man for whom the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers traded Eberle: Ryan Strome? Is he a rightwinger or a cen­tre?

On the Oil­ers’ first-line along­side Con­nor McDavid or the cen­tring the third?

Strome is on the sec­ond power-play unit, but at even-strength or with the man ad­van­tage, he’s still feel­ing his way.

He’s a good player — a for­mer fifth-over­all draft pick of the Is­landers — but so far, colour his pro­duc­tion beige.

It’s an aw­fully small sam­ple size, ob­vi­ously.

And very few Oil­ers for­wards through the three reg­u­lar-sea­son games have stood out. Only Con­nor McDavid (3), Ryan Nu­gent-Hop­kins (2) and Leon Drai­saitl (1) have scored, so you can de­scribe most of them as “meh.”

What we know about Strome, who came to the Oil­ers in late June for Eberle, is he’s younger and cheaper, but the Oil­ers gave up Eberle’s bet­ter ca­reer stats.

They’re sav­ing US$3.5mil­lion on the salary cap this year, and Strome is age 24 while Eberle is 27.

But Eberle, even with his im­per­fec­tions in the play­offs last spring when he didn’t score in 13 games, has still played twice as many NHL games, 511 vs. 261, and has 384 points to Strome’s 126.

Strome started on McDavid’s right wing at camp and scored a cou­ple of goals but has played as the No. 3 cen­tre be­hind McDavid and Ryan Nu­gent-Hop­kins in the reg­u­lar-sea­son. Leon Drai­saitl moved back to McDavid’s line be­cause no one else seized it, and teenager Kailer Ya­mamoto, who has played two reg­u­lar-sea­son games, was on the top line Thurs­day be­cause Drai­saitl isn’t skat­ing be­cause of vi­sion prob­lems.

Oiler coach Todd McLel­lan, who al­ways likes a por­ta­ble lineup, wants Strome in the mid­dle.

“Strome has been most pro­duc­tive at the cen­tre ice po­si­tion,” he said. “He’s get­ting bet­ter on a daily ba­sis. He’s got some cre­ativ­ity at cen­tre, and he’s had the puck more in those sit­u­a­tions. We have to be pre­pared to still tin­ker with our lineup, though. We’re try­ing to in­te­grate guys as to how we want to play, with our in­juries (Drake Cag­giula now, An­ton Slepy­shev through camp) and break­ing in new peo­ple.”

Strome was a cen­tre in ju­nior but a right-winger about 70 per cent of the time on Long Is­land.

“You have more re­spon­si­bil­ity, for sure, at cen­tre but the big­gest thing is face-offs. I haven’t taken those in a cou­ple of years, but it’s been fun,” said Strome, who’s ac­tu­ally 50 per cent (14-14) on draws at even-strength, bet­ter than any­one else who’s taken more than 10 face-offs.

“When I got drafted, I thought I’d be an NHL cen­tre, but got to the pros and it was a dif­fer­ent story. The year I made the team (Is­landers) we had a deep team and it was tough to crack their cen­tres (group). They had (Casey) Czikas, (Brock) Nel­son, Frans Nielsen and John Tavares down the mid­dle. Pretty solid four cen­tres,” he said.

Right now, he doesn’t much care where he plays as long as he plays. He’s av­er­ag­ing 13-1/2 min­utes, 11:38 of it at even-strength (sev­enth most among for­wards). He has five shots in the three games.

Strome, as he said, has no prob­lem mov­ing around the lineup.

“You get to play with dif­fer­ent play­ers and cer­tainly get to learn the coaches’ sys­tem from ev­ery po­si­tion on the ice, which is good,” said Strome. “I need to show that ver­sa­til­ity, that I can play all over the lineup. With such a tal­ented team with so many in­ter-change­able parts, it’s a valu­able as­set.”

You don’t judge trades af­ter a week or even a year, but there’s al­ways go­ing to be white noise from fans, try­ing to com­pare play­ers. Strome doesn’t feel any heat to be light­ing it up, though.

“There’s not too much pres­sure,” he said. “The thing I’ve no­ticed about this team is the per­sonal ac­co­lades who does the job is never that im­por­tant. In the dress­ing room, it’s who blocks a shot or makes a great save, hon­estly, is more no­ticed with these guys.”

There’s no time frame for when new play­ers start to make an im­pact. Or whether it makes a dif­fer­ence if they’re com­ing from the Eastern Con­fer­ence.

”Ev­ery sit­u­a­tion has it’s own set of cir­cum­stances. Re­mem­ber when (An­drej) Sek­era came here (freeagent)? It took him a lit­tle while in the first year to adapt and while he’d played a lot in the East (Carolina), he was play­ing in L.A. for a bit, even if he got hurt there,” said the Oil­ers coach.

“Ryan un­der­stands the drills and the lan­guage we’re us­ing. He’s get­ting more com­fort­able.”

“He’s got some cre­ativ­ity at cen­tre ...” Oil­ers head coach Todd McLel­lan



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