It’s not often that two players drafted by the same organization get the chance to develop together as junior teammates, never mind play on the same line together. But that’s exactly the case with Ryan Strome and Mitchell Theoret, who have torn up opposing defenses this season, combining for 60 points in 22 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs.
Strome, the Islanders first selection (fifth overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, expected to start this season as he did the last – competing for a job in Islanders Training Camp. Due to the NHL work stoppage, the 6’0, 190-pound center is still waiting for his opportunity to take that step to the next level.
“Obviously it’s not the ideal situation, but really the only way to look at it is that it’s out of my control,” Strome said of returning for a fourth season of junior hockey. “I have the opportunity to play in a great developmental league and with great people in Niagara. It’s definitely not a bad fallback option and it’s a chance for me to continue to get better and work on my skills. Each day I try to get more prepared for the chance when I do get to come to New York and prove that I’m ready to play.”
Strome leads the OHL with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists), four points ahead of Brett Ritchie, the second-highest scorer in the league and third member of the IceDogs’ top line. The Mississauga, ON native has found the score sheet in 20 of Niagara’s 22 games this season, posting 12 multiple-point outings. Strome’s offensive output shows steady growth from the past two campaigns: He scored 106 points in 65 games in 2010-11 and 68 points in 46 games in 2011-12.
That’s not the case with Theoret, who has already equaled his career-high in points (21) just 18 games into his fourth season. The Islanders seventh-round choice in that same 2011 Draft was more of a grinder during the first three seasons of his junior career. But as a seasoned veteran on a team that lost several key forwards to graduation this offseason, Theoret was asked to step up.
“I know [Head Coach] Marty Williamson was counting on me coming into this year to have more offensive production,” Theoret said. “I’ve also started playing the penalty kill and power play this year, which is something I hadn’t done in my first three years. He’s put quite a responsibility on me, and playing with guys like Strome and Ritchie has been great. Ryan and I have great chemistry off the ice, but now we’re starting to build it on the ice as well.”
Williamson has been pleased with his top line’s results so far.
“This line we’ve put together with Brett Ritchie and Stromer and Theo has developed electric chemistry,” Williamson said. “They are all really complementing each other quite well. Strome has taken on more of a leadership role with this hockey team than he had to last year, and he’s doing a lot of little things. Theo is a big guy with big hands, he’s gotten real serious about his game, and it’s reaping some rewards for him.”
Though Strome and Theoret both made huge strides during the offseason, their inspiration and methods to take their games to the next level were very different. Strome was attempting to earn an NHL contract with the Islanders, while gaining international experience as well. He worked out with John Tavares at The Athletes Training Centre in Toronto, and as one of the marquee names on Team Canada’s roster at the Canada-Russia Challenge in August, scored four points in the four-game tournament, including the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 4. Strome is also expected to join Canada again at the World Junior Championships in December and January.
“Summer was pretty busy, going to Russia and going to New York for prospect camp at the end of June,” Strome said. “I’m happy with the steps that I made and I just want to continue to get stronger during the season and next season as well. Everyone in New York was helping out with my success, and working out with pros like John back in Toronto doesn’t hurt either.”
Meanwhile, Theoret was trying to make a bigger impact at the OHL level in order to earn an Entry-Level Contract with the Islanders. While his teammate was playing on the international stage, Theoret was quietly putting in the work to come back with a more well-rounded game.
“I was living with my grandma in Oakville, Ontario, working out at a gym called BTNL,” Theoret said. “I had to put in quite a bit of work on my overall game over the summer. I had to get a lot faster, but being big, I also had to work on my strength. I did a lot of cardio and a lot of speed workouts. I was in the gym Monday through Friday, and on the ice just about every day. I didn’t really have too many breaks other than a couple weeks after the season finished up here, and then it was right back to work.”
Williamson said that the impact Strome made upon his return to Niagara showed a maturity that will not only help at the OHL level, but will make him a better professional player. The IceDogs bench boss is more impressed with Strome’s all-around game than his head-turning offensive statistics.
“He’s got a great will to win,” Williamson said. “Besides playing good hockey and putting up the points, he’s starting to complete himself, and that’s what he needs to do if he wants to be a pro and have a long NHL career. You can’t have holes in your game or in your character. You’ve got to be a complete guy, and he’s constantly working at that.”
Williamson was not shy to heap praise on Theoret either, both for his work ethic and will to improve his game.
“Theo is probably the guy who has come the farthest,” Williamson said. “We needed that. We lost a lot of good players on this team after last season. We wanted to be competitive this year and we needed the younger guys to step up and play a bigger role for us. It took a little bit for him to get used to playing in all the different situations, but now that he’s in full swing, he’s doing a fantastic job for us.”
Enjoying the harmony they have established both on and off the ice, Strome and Theoret hope to continue their success and remain on the same line for the rest of season.
“We want to continue to get better, outscore teams and do a good job in our own end, shutting down our opponents’ top lines,” Strome said. “We’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity we’re getting, because obviously he’s a great guy to play with and we want to stay together as long as we can.”
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