Let’s Talk About Ryan Strome and the New York Rangers

Should he stay, or should he go? Or should he stay, and then go?

The NHL trade deadline is on April 12, and I am having a hard time figuring out what the sixth place New York Rangers should do with Ryan Strome. As I’ve thought about him, his place on the 2020-21 Rangers, and what the team may attempt to do for 2021-22, it has become clear to me that there’s no easy answer. And to be honest, I think that’s surprising, especially considering how the offseason went for Mr. Strome.

The Rangers tried, and failed, to make a deal for another top six center, specifically one who could play with Artemiy Panarin. When it came to Strome, there were questions regarding whether the Rangers would go to arbitration, and potentially walk away from an award if it were too high. Those questions subsided as Jeff Gorton’s inability to strike a deal ultimately resulted a short-term deal with their current No. 2 center — but that two-year deal only emphasized questions about his future.

Since the inked dried — and there was a considerable amount of time because of the delayed start to the season — Strome’s been far and away one of the team’s best players. Last season he played well offensively, but his underlying numbers weren’t great, In jest, this was my go to reaction whenever he made a big play or scored last season, and I’ve carried it over to this season.

But this year’s been a different story, although the sample is under 400 minutes at 5v5.

Strome, per Evolving-Hockey, ended 2019-20 with a line that included a 62.06 GF%, a CF% of 48.97, and an xGF% of 52.63 — that’s a lot of great results, without the strongest underlying numbers to match. This season the line is 52.67%, 49.94%, and 56.88%, respectively. When comparing the two, you’ll see that Strome’s GF% is down, but his CF% is slightly up, and his xGF% is up which is conducive to sustainable results. What is driving these numbers is that while Strome’s xGF/60 has decreased from 3.03 last season to 2.91 this season, his xGA/60 is down to 2.21 which is 52 basis points lower than last year.

So in short, Strome’s production for has seen a slight dip, but defensively he’s been giving up less too.  This tracks by looking at his isolated 5v5 impact via HockeyViz, and while no one will anoint Strome as a defensive specialist, he’s pulling in the right direction.

Strome’s also looked positive in Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric, and he’s currently sitting third on the team with a GAR of 5.8. In case you aren’t familiar, you can read up on their model and methodology at Hockey-Graphs. The most impressive part is his total defensive GAR of 0 which is an improvement from the -4 he had last season.

Here’s the full breakdown looking at how he’s performed in each category since joining the Rangers.

Strome’s 2019-20 GAR of 6.7 included an offensive GAR of 13.3, a defensive GAR of -4, and a penalty differential GAR of -2.5. Had Strome been better defensively and more disciplined in 19-20, he would have come close to his GAR of 16.6 which he compiled in his first full season with the New York Islanders.

There certainly is a lot of season left to play and these numbers could change, but it certainly appears that Strome has figured it out, or at the very least has changed his approach while on the ice. He’s done this while offensively holding his own, and more impressively, it has come at a time in which he’s played without Panarin. Instead, he succeeded alongside Chris Kreider, who he hadn’t seen much 5-on-5 time with prior to this season. Now that the Rangers just got their star winger back into the lineup, Strome was reunited with Panarin upon his return, so it will be interesting to see how, and how much, the two play together for the remainder of the season.

So given all this information, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Strome, given his age (28 in July), production, and improvements, appears to be a player who can be part of what the Rangers are building. At the very least it could be worth holding onto him given the uncertainty of what is going to happen with Mika Zibanejad, how the team will attempt to add another top six center, and that Filip Chytil is still figuring things out. It is clear that Strome will be looking for a long term deal since the longest contract of his career was his entry-level contract. And with the team’s cap situation beyond this season, it may not be hard to fit in Strome on a deal around $5 million for four years.

If you’ve been reading, and reading and waiting for the “but”, here it is.

Despite everything I have just told you, and everything I have cited regarding Strome’s value, worth, and development, there’s still reasons why they should consider trading him. The biggest reason is that long term the team has aspirations to acquire a top-six center, and it could be a numbers game with Strome.

If no centers are dealt in a hypothetical Jack Eichel trade, which could happen if the return is heavy on prospects and picks (Vitali Kravtsov, Nils Lundkvist/Braden Schneider etc.), that would leave the team with Eichel, Zibanejad (one year remaining), Strome (one year remaining) Chytil (RFA), Brett Howden (RFA), and Kevin Rooney. There’s also the chance they don’t go down that road and push for someone in free agency the following year (hello Aleksander Barkov), but the bottom line is that they want more talent down the middle which will force to some current roster players moving on out.

In this hypothetical, when push comes to shove, I’d venture to say the team would look to move Strome first. And in an environment where the team is trading him because there isn’t a spot for him, that would put the Rangers in a disadvantage in trade negotiations because everyone in the league would understand the situation they’re in.

In this scenario, there’s still no long-term guarantee that Zibanejad is staying beyond 2021-22, but I feel it is more plausible that the team would try to figure something out cap wise if he’d be open to a role as a No. 2 center on a team about to make the jump to Stanley Cup contender.

Zibanejad has greatly struggled this year, although he’s been better of late, however, I don’t think the team will write him off because of it — but maybe those struggles mean his market value comes down a bit.

If the Rangers and Zibanejad can’t work something out, then on he goes to another organization with Chytil assuming his place as the No. 2 center unless a deal for Zibanejad involves them getting another young center back. Even if you want to say that Chytil would have to be part of a hypothetical Eichel trade, I still don’t think his inclusion would lead the Rangers to trying to keep Strome as their No. 2 center for the foreseeable future. I think they’d be fine with him as a No. 3 center who can move up when needed while also playing on the power play, but if they want to keep someone to slot behind Eichel, it is going to be Zibanejad. Shayna Goldman had more particulars on potential long term implications in a recent story at The Athletic, check it out if you haven’t already.

This is all to say that Eichel to NYR may never happen, but in any case the team clearly will look to do something. Take your pick of player, and odds are the majority of what I wrote above still applies in some capacity.

With that said, I firmly believe trading him this year to a contender who would have him for a playoff run plus one would yield a fair return which makes sense for the team, and it lessens the risk of Strome regressing next season and tanking his value in the final year of his contract.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that it is better to trade someone a year too soon, rather than a year too late. That’s why many felt the team should move on from Strome after last season, and given how he’s played in 2020-21, it feels that the team’s been given another opportunity to cash out. As I’ve said, the Rangers could press their luck, run out his contract and re-evaluate, but there’s risk associated with that.

In 2014-15, Derick Brassard posted a GAR of 11 for the Rangers (11 OFF, -1.2 DEF, 1.2 PEN). The following season he posted a GAR of 8.3 for the Rangers (9.3 OFF, -0.6 DEF, -0.4 PEN). He was famously traded for Mika Zibanejad, and the rest is history.

For the sake of transparency, Brassard did post a GAR of 9.2 during his first year with the Ottawa Senators, but he followed it up with 6.9 in 2017-18 split between Ottawa and Pittsburgh, -14.6 in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, Florida, Colorado, 4.1 in 2019-20 with the Islanders, and he’s sitting at 1.8 this year with the Coyotes.

Brassard was dealt after scoring a career high of 27 goals, while also tallying 58 points which were two fewer than the career high of 60 he established the season prior. Strome tallied 59 points over 70 games in 2019-20, and if he keeps pace will finish this season with a line of 21-21-42 in 56 games. In other words, the situation would be pretty similar.

You can see here that while Strome’s career numbers for GAR have been on an upswing, he is still below the mark he established during his rookie season, and I’m willing to bet that this year or next year will be the best of years that Strome have as a hockey player.

For more on age curves, I’d suggest Micah Blake McCurdy’s 2019 presentation from the RIT Sports Analytics conference. There are always outliers, but in this situation if he plays ahead of the curve, his eventual deal would be in the majority of his 30s which wouldn’t make sense for the Rangers. He certainly could prove the team wrong, but if he does that he’s playing himself into a contract the Rangers ultimately won’t give him.

The comparison is different because of contract and position, but with Strome I think of Michael Grabner too. He joined the Rangers in the 2016-17 season and scored 27 goals while shooting 16.7 percent. He scored 22 of these before February which made him an ideal trade deadline candidate. No one thought he’d do it again, so why not sell high? As luck would have it, Grabner scored 25 goals in 59 games the following season shooting 19.1 percent before being moved in a deadline deal. What has Grabner done since that point? He’s appeared in 108 games and scored just 19 goals, although he was sidelined for 41 games after suffering an eye injury before ultimately getting bought out by the Arizona Coyotes in October.

The long story short here, sometimes players catch lightning in a bottle with a team, and then it is gone. In Strome’s case, he was a highly touted pick who had a good first full season with the Islanders, and from there he just dropped off. His time in Edmonton wasn’t great, and joining the Rangers gave him a fresh start which he’s fully taken advantage of. In November of 2019 I compared Strome to players who were of a similar archetype in terms of draft slot, circumstance, and potential. At the time he was solidly in fifth place on that list, and if you run the numbers again, here’s how things stand.

Brayden Schenn, 686 GP — 63.1 GAR | 11.9 WAR | 0.319 GAR/60

Derick Brassard, 879 GP — 61.6 GAR | 11.5 WAR | 0.261 GAR/60

Mika Zibanejad, 575 GP — 59.3 GAR | 11.2 WAR | 0.351 GAR/60

Kyle Turris, 746 GP — 30.2 GAR | 5.8 WAR | 0.144 GAR/60

Ryan Strome, 518 GP — 25.9 GAR | 4.8 WAR | 0.187 GAR/60

Basically he has improved, but it would still take him having a monster rest of this season, a monster 2021-22, and potentially 2022-23 to bridge the gap to get into Brassard territory, but I’m not sure how likely that is to happen.

With all of that said, barring a surprise, I think Jeff Gorton doesn’t do much of anything at the deadline, and waits till the offseason to make the sweeping changes to help pivot the roster in the right direction.

The uncertainty of the expansion draft could lead to some interesting deals, but I’ll save that for another day. With that said though, he should keep his options and not be gun shy if an opportunity to deal Strome presents itself.

Strome has been solid for the Rangers, and his contract is fine. There’s no reason to push him out the door, and at $4.5 million he can continue to provide value... for now. In the big picture despite all of that, the Rangers should be using this ‘lost’ season as an opportunity to convert whatever players aren’t in the grand plan into as many assets as possible. Gorton should be mindful that if there’s an opportunity to add assets to the war chest ahead of an offseason trade, it could be worth a few conversations. Strome may be of better use to the Rangers as an asset than a player, and while he certainly could have value in the offseason, he’s likely to fetch more this season.

Stats via Evolving-Hockey and HockeyViz unless otherwise noted.