By Daniel Friedman
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On December 11, 2013, just 24 hours after they snapped a 10-game winless streak with a shootout victory in San Jose, the New York Islanders called up Ryan Strome from Bridgeport.
It’s not a coincidence that the Isles are 7-3-2 since Strome’s debut, which ended in a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Even that game was a step forward from where the team had previously been, particularly in the month of November.
On Monday night at Nassau Coliseum, the former fifth-overall pick notched his first NHL goal in a 7-3 rout of the Dallas Stars. “I was just sitting on the back door hoping for a loose puck,” said Strome. “My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw it pop out there.”
He also added that it was “probably the longest scoring drought I’ve ever had in my life,” and admitted that getting his first goal out of the way was very relieving.
“Now I can just play,” says Strome. “Hopefully the next one doesn’t take as long as the first one. I just have to keep making sure I’m doing the right things and chip in where I can. You obviously want to produce but, at the same time, you want to make sure you’re still getting those chances and doing the right things.”
Strome’s energetic pace and attitude is infectious, and while he hasn’t’ gotten on the scoresheet every night, he’s always hustled and shown a lot of jump.
“Ever since the first time I stepped on the ice, it was exciting,” he said. “We’ve gotta keep building, keep that excitement and use it to my advantage. I’m here to produce and want to stay.”
During his first couple of games, Strome looked comfortable but he was making a lot of smart, safe plays. Lately, he’s turned it up a notch and used his offensive prowess to have an impact. To put it in perspective, he’s taken 18 shots in his past five games. In the five previous skirmishes, he took just five shots.
He really started to break out of his shell against Minnesota, where he helped create a goal with his skating ability, patience with the puck and passing skills. The Islanders ended up pulling off a big come-from-behind win.
Strome should’ve been an Islander in October, but he’s here now and he’s making a difference. He’s not the only reason the team’s been better of late, but he’s injected some life and excitement into the lineup and that sort of thing can rub off on your teammates.
It also doesn’t hurt that Strome has John Tavares as a mentor. “If I can learn one thing of the 100 things he does, it’ll make me successful,” he says.
Strome’s been superb, but there have been a few others who’ve also stepped in and filled their roles valiantly.
Most Islander fans had essentially written-off Calvin de Haan, a savvy two-way defenseman who’s dealt with injury after injury, setback after setback since draft day. His stock had dropped considerably since 2009, when he was the Isles’ final cut as an 18-year-old.
I watched him in training camp back in September, and what I saw in de Haan was not a bust, not by any stretch of the imagination. I saw a player who was very close to being ready for the NHL.
His reads were excellent, his passes were crisp and he made smart decisions with and without the puck. I thought his positioning and defensive zone coverage could use a bit of work but I could see he had all the tools to become an effective rearguard at both ends of the ice.
I’ll be honest; I thought he was right up there with Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart and, if not for the fact that he was coming off an injury, there’s a reasonable chance he would’ve made the Isles’ roster.
He’s been very impressive, despite being absolutely posterized (in a hockey sense) Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Corey Perry, in that order. The Islanders are 8-7-4 since de Haan made his season debut against Washington and he’s given Travis Hamonic the reliable defense partner he’d been missing all year.
Like Strome, de Haan played it safe at the beginning, opting for simple, smart, quick and quiet.
Not too long after de Haan joined the team, John Tavares, had this to say about his former teammate in Oshawa: “Right now, he’s still trying to get his feet wet and make sure he’s doing all the right things without the puck. But he’s got some offense too, and I’m sure one his confidence builds, so will his offensive game.”
Sure enough, his confidence is building and he now has three points in his last two games. He also scored his first NHL goal this week, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, with friends and family in attendance at the Air Canada Centre.
“It was a greasy one,” said de Haan. “Obviously it’s pretty cool, especially to score in my home province. They all count, it’s a great feeling.”
De Haan is now making the transition from responsible and covert to responsible and more pronounced. What I mean by that is, he’s settling in and starting to show more swagger in all three zones, but he hasn’t done it at the expense of his all-around game. That’s how you know what you really have in a young defenseman; what he looks like after the training wheels come off.
Calvin’s a future stud, and people are starting to understand why Garth Snow traded up twice to select him 12th-overall nearly five years ago. You might think that puts more pressure on de Haan, but I asked him about it and he told me that’s not the case.
“I don’t think there’s added pressure,” he said. “There are guys who are drafted in the seventh round who are NHL All-Stars. It doesn’t matter where you’re drafted; it’s what you do after. I’ve just gotta keep playing my game. I’m 100-percent healthy so it’s just a matter of staying the course and playing the way I can play.”
Of course, I cannot move on without mentioning Brock Nelson, who’s made serious strides since the beginning of the season. I didn’t feel he was ready back in October and I do think it took him longer to acclimate to the NHL than many other people felt it did, but the fact is he’s proven himself and I couldn’t be happier for him.
Nelson’s been able to skate alongside Tavares and Thomas Vanek on the top line when called upon and perform admirably. He’s been used in multiple situations and is starting to mature as a hockey player.
His game-winning-goal on Monday night was an all-confidence tally, complete with a rush, deke and a wrist shot wired into the top shelf. It was a flash of brilliance and a sneak peak of what we can expect from Nelson in the coming future.
Islanders’ head coach Jack Capuano has had a lot of praise for his young kids, but at the same time, he’s been realistic. “They’ve still got some time to go and I know they scored and it’s great,” he said. “But it’s a process; guys have made some mistakes, there’s no question about it. As long as we continue to help them and continue to teach, that’s the ultimate goal — to keep them getting better.”
Then there’s Brian Strait, who’d been out with an injury and off his game well before that point. Fortunately for him and his teammates, he’s gotten back to that level of play we saw from him when he first arrived off the waiver wire.
Strait’s positioning, his demeanor, his focus; it’s all been there. His Isles are 7-4-2 since his return and he’s been producing during that span (four points, +1 rating).
With Strait back in the lineup and the emergence of de Haan, the Islanders have gained two quality NHL blueliners. Considering the personnel on the roster, that’s two more than they previously had. One-third of their defense, which had previously been in complete disrepair, is now a bit more steady and reliable. Naturally, that’s going to help your team win more often.
The Islanders are nine points out of a playoff spot with 37 games remaining. They’ve rattled off several impressive victories over the last month or so, beating San Jose, the Rangers, Detroit, Minnesota, Boston and Chicago.
I think that, at the very least, we know the Isles are better than their record would indicate. How much better? That’s not something that can be answered at this juncture. But they’ve stopped the bleeding and are now trending upward, which is the first step.
They’ve won five of their last six contests and, obviously, that’s in large part due to their big guns. But they can also thank Ryan Strome, Calvin de Haan and Brian Strait, because all three have played a major role in the Islanders’ current upswing.
As more young talent is filtered in and these kids continue to mature, the Islanders will become a stronger team. They’re far from perfect, but there’s clearly a foundation of success to build on.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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