It's no secret that the New Jersey Devils need a center to pair with Ilya Kovalchuk.
The team struggled last season to find a consistent pairing, shifting him around the lineup with different pivot men. Without Zach Parise, Travis Zajac became a solid linemate for the left-winger. But Parise and Zajac have great chemistry, and an on-ice reunion between the two is inevitable.
With the fourth pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft, the Devils can possibly find a young center to compliment their franchise cornerstone. Ryan Strome could fill that need, and ESPN believes the Devils will select him with their first-round pick.
Strome entered the season the 19th ranked prospect in the NHL Central Scouting mid-term rankings. He shot up the rankings, ending the season the number 8 prospect on their list.
The rankings don't matter to the young center.
"The ranking are part of the game, but at the end of the day evert team has their own draft list," Strome told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "Come draft day, you see guys like Cam Fowler last year that can be ranked second or third and they can drop out of the top 10. The rankings are interesting and fun to look at, but it doesn't mean too much in the long run."
Strome exploded onto the scene last season with the Niagara IceDogs. He finished third in the OHL with 106 points, which included a whopping 73 assists. He helped lead the IceDogs to a franchise-best 45 wins and 96 points. His 1.63 points-per-game average ranked first among the top OHL scorers.
He earned several honors after the season. The OHL Eastern Conference coaches named him the Most Improved Player for the 2010-11 season. He also tied for Best Stickhandler with Ryan Spooner, a Boston Bruins draft pick.
Several scouts point to Strome's skating as his biggest asset. He can make the plays at high speeds and uses his body to battle in front.
"He skates very well and has very good speed," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He's a creative playmaker who sees the ice very well. He goes to the net and battles in front. He is able to get rebounds and loose pucks in front. He has good hands and has scored some goals off tip-ins in front."
Niagra general manager and head coach Marty Williamson praised the center's confidence.
"Ryan is one of those guys that initiates contact and makes a great play," Williamson told NHL.com. "He plays in those traffic areas and he wins battles and then he makes great passes. He's got great vision...He's confident, he feels good on the ice, and when you have skill and a lot of confidence, good things happen."
Strome's also shown the ability to drop the gloves. He finished the season with four fighting majors, and tacked on one more during the postseason. The IceDogs tried to discourage him from fighting, and it's not something he wants to do regularly.
"I'm not a guy that's going to be a fighter," Strome told Gulitti. "My coach didn't like when I fought this year, but I've always had a gritty side to me. I have a lacrosse background, so it's kind of where I came from. I like to play a gritty game and I'm not going to back down from everyone."
Like most prospects, Strome needs to improve his size and strength.
"The size is all right," Edwards told Gulitti, "but the strength, he can get knocked off pucks when in battles with older guys and that's going to happen. That's going to happen at the next level too. I would say that would [be the] thing he needs to improve the most, as with all young players."
The Devils interviewed Strome during the NHL Scouting Combine and administered extra testing a few days later. Several other teams interviewed the center, and other teams invited him for further testing.
With several teams checking in, Strome has no preference on where he's drafted.
"Everyone wants to know where you're going - friends, family, everyone. They want to know," he told Gulitti. "Right now, their guess is as good as mine. I'm not too sure what's going to happen, so its kind of a waiting game and a guessing game right now...Any team is fantastic. I'm not going to be too picky and worry too much about what team it ends up to be."
On Friday, he could be a future linemate to Kovalchuk and the newest Devil.