There was a possibility that Ryan Strome could have been playing with the New York Islanders this season with a strong training camp. Instead, the 5th overall pick in the 2011 draft is tearing up the OHL for the Niagara IceDogs, leading the league in scoring with 37 points in 21 games.
On Monday night, he also led the OHL past Russia in the second leg of the Subway Super Series.
Strome was one of the few OHL players returning from last Thursday’s tough 2-1 loss, the first ever loss for the OHL in the annual event. With a wealth of players for Team Canada to evaluate heading towards the World Junior Championship, a vast swathe of the team was swapped out, bringing in high-end talent like Mark Scheifele and Dougie Hamilton in place of the similarly talented Boone Jenner and Ryan Murphy.
The OHL schedule also helped dictate the roster changes, with several players having games the night before.
Strome was the star for the OHL, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the 2-1 victory, while consistently creating chances offensively throughout the game. His goal, seen above, is a prime example of his many offensive talents, as he starts the breakout with a superb pass from the defensive zone, then follows up the play by carefully keeping his distance from his prospective check, Bogdan Yakimov.
Notice how Strome is essentially skating in Yakimov’s blind spot, then glides into the perfect position to receive the pass from Garrett Meurs for the one-timer. It’s an exceptionally intelligent route to take and he makes no mistake on the finish.
Strome’s assist also showed his intelligence, this time on the powerplay, as he rotated out to the point, drawing a defender out with him, allowing defenceman Frankie Corrado, a Canucks prospect, to shift down to the backdoor. Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton hammered a shot from the point low and on the pads, leaving Andrei Vasilevski little choice but to kick the rebound straight out to the waiting Corrado.
Corrado, for his part, player a superb game, playing alongside Hamilton in all situations and using his positioning, gap control, and smart use of his stick to break up several promising rushes. That top pairing is a big reason that Russia was limited to just 17 shots in the game. Corrado partnered very well with Hamilton and may have made a case for his inclusion on Team Canada come December.
Also making a case was Washington Capitals prospect Tom Wilson, who brought the crowd to their feet with several massive body checks. He crushed Mikhail Naumenkov into the boards in the second period, a hit that was named the best play of the period by the Sportsnet broadcast, then flattened Nail Yakupov in the third with an open-ice check that the usually shifty Yakupov was unable to avoid. He was officially credited with 6 hits in the game and his 6’4″ frame appeared to be everywhere at times.
Wilson apparently broke Yakupov’s helmet on the hit and Yakupov gave the helmet to a fan at the end of the game. It was Yakupov’s first time back to Sarnia after leaving the Sting for the KHL and he received a fairly warm welcome from the Sarnia fans.
More impressive than Wilson’s hits, however, was his defensive play. One particular play that stands out was his picture-perfect poke-check on Yakupov in the neutral zone in the first period that led to a scoring chance the other way. His effort level was also noticeable, as he never stopped skating on the backcheck, breaking up odd-man rushes with his diligence. His backcheck late in the third period on a 3-on-2 saved a sure goal.
Other OHL skaters that stood out include Bruins prospect Anthony Camara, who played a tough physical game while showing some excellent puckhandling skills, Jets prospect Mark Scheifele, who clearly has high-level ability to go with an improving physical side, Penguins prospect Scott Harrington, who made several nice defensive plays, and Leafs prospect Joshua Leivo, who made some savvy offensive plays and came just short of scoring on a third period breakaway.
Yakupov scored in the final minute of the game to make things interesting. With the goaltender pulled, Russia scrambled in the offensive zone while Yakupov calmly found an open patch of ice. Blackhawks prospect Maxim Shalunov, spun off his check and threw the puck to the front of the net. Somehow, it got through the tangle of legs and found Yakupov all alone. He made no mistake.
The Russians had a chance to tie the game in the dying seconds, but Hamilton was there to intercept a pass from Yakupov to Bruins prospect Alexander Khokhlachev in front of the net.
In general, the OHL did well to limit Yakupov’s time and space with the puck, particularly in the neutral zone, giving him little chance to wind up and use his speed to attack the defence. The aggressive attack in the neutral zone forced Yakupov to take a more circuitous route into the offensive zone. Still, when he got the opportunity, his speed and puck control were impressive.
The draft eligible Valeri Nichushkin was noticeable for Russia, using his slick hands and big body to protect the puck and create scoring chances. The one knock on him so far in this series is that he tries to do everything himself rather than utilizing his teammates, something that was also noted on the Sportsnet broadcast. The 17-year-old has no points in his three games, but continues to show the high-level skill that will likely lead to a top-ten pick in the 2013 draft.
Andrei Vasilevski was excellent in net, making 27 saves on 29 shots, keeping the game close while Russia struggled to create anything offensively. His save on Leivo’s breakaway was particularly nice and would have been a turning point had Russia been able to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Team Canada will have some tough choices ahead for selecting their World Junior team, with the two WHL games in the Super Series remaining. An end to the lockout would potentially make that selection process a little easier, as Hamilton, Strome, Scheifele, and several others would be on their way to playing in the NHL.