ON THE HORIZON – Ryan Strome, F, Niagara (OHL)

Before being named head coach and general manager of the Niagara Ice Dogs prior to the 2010-11 Ontario Hockey League season, Marty Williamson led the Barrie Colts to 239 regular season victories and two Central Division titles in his six seasons in a similar role at the helm of its division foe.

Yet, despite amassing a league-best 116 points in leading the Colts to the 2009-10 OHL Championship finals against Western Conference foe Windsor, Williamson clearly recalled an in-house struggle he would have to face – as the team’s general manager – midway through that campaign.

“We knew that we had the type of team to contend for an OHL championship,” recollected Williamson. “But in order to take that next step, we were looking to add a top- pairing defenseman.

“When (current St. Louis Blues defenseman and 2008 fourth overall NHL draft entry selection) Alex Pieterangelo became available, we knew that they (Niagara) would be asking for a player that all the other teams in the OHL had wanted in a trade – Ryan Strome. We hesitated, but thought it was a deal that we had to make.”

Only 16 years of age at the time of the trade, Strome was playing alongside 18, 19 and even 20-year-olds in Barrie. Nonetheless, Williamson saw a limitless potential in his Mississauga, Ontario, Canada center iceman.

“Ryan always had great vision,” said Williamson. “He owned the ice playing in Midget, and we thought it would only take time for him to do it here (in the OHL).”

Strome, who collected 104 points – 41 goals and 63 assists – as a 15-year old for the Toronto Marlboros in Midget Hockey, scored five goals and assisted on nine others in 34 games in Barrie. After the trade, he would pot three goals and dish out 10 assists in 27 games for Niagara.

“I thought the trade to Niagara really allowed me to step into my own,” said Strome. “I was given an opportunity to get power play minutes. And being that Niagara was in a rebuild, I was playing on the team’s top two lines.”

Despite finishing 56 points behind his former Central Division foe, Strome’s new squad snuck into the 2009-10 OHL post-season before bowing out to the Ottawa 67’s in the conference quarterfinals in five games.

Strome would generate three assists in the five-game setback. Nevertheless, the short time in Niagara would not only prove to be a springboard to the team’s rise up the OHL rankings, but catapult the then six-foot, 177-pound Strome to a household name among NHL scouting directors just a few short months later.

Ironically, Williamson would come along for the ride.

“When I had an opportunity to coach Ryan again, I thought he would be a mid-to-late first round NHL pick with the potential to score 70-to-80 points,” said Williamson. “His progress was definitely sped up by a year.”

As the 2010-11 season commenced, Strome centered Williamson’s top line and took the OHL by storm. He racked up a team-high 106 points – 33 goals and 73 assists – in 65 games. He finished third overall in league scoring, behind Ottawa 67 center Tyler Toffoli and Kitchener Ranger Jason Akeson, who both finished with 108 points.

The Ice Dogs would finish 36 points ahead of last season’s standings – 96 vs. 60 – while advancing to the Eastern Conference finals before falling to current Islander prospect Casey Cizikas and the Mississauga Majors in five games.

At season’s end, the International Scouting Service also touted Strome as its ninth best overall prospect heading into this past June’s NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota.

Garth Snow and the Islanders organization would not wait that long, grabbing the now 6-foot-1, 183-pound Strome with the draft’s fifth overall selection.

“I was excited to be drafted by the Islander organization,” said Strome, who spent the past few off-seasons in his native Mississauga weight training with current Islander forwards John Tavares and Matt Moulson. “Both John and Matt speak highly of the organization. They are both high-end character guys.”

After the selection, Strome spent the summer in Uniondale participating in the Islanders Blue-White Scrimmage, showcasing his talents in front of a hungry Islander fan base.

“The Islander fan base was very nice and very welcoming,” said Strome. “I wanted to show them that I could be a very creative player with the puck, with the vision to help others.”

Strome also participated in the Islanders training camp, with hopes of earning an NHL roster spot by mid-Fall. While he was able to earn an opening day roster spot due to a groin injury suffered by 2010 first round pick Nino Niederreiter, Strome would not dress and was quickly summoned back to Niagara for his third OHL season.

“While I was hoping to make the team, I know that I must get physically bigger to be a more effective player,” said Strome. “I want to be a more well-rounded hockey player.”

Upon his return to Niagara, Strome has continued to light the lamp on a regular basis. In his first 24 games with the Ice Dogs, Strome has scored 16 goals and dished off 17 assists. The Ice Dogs sit tied for second with the Colts in the Central Division with 41 points, three points behind division leader Brampton.

According to Williamson, Strome’s all-around game has also vastly improved.

“While Ryan doesn’t have as many points as last year, he is concentrating more on the little things,” said Williamson. “He has improved his face-offs and working on shortening his shifts.”

Over the past week, Strome earned a coveted slot for Team Canada in the upcoming World Junior Championships. The tournament is slated to begin on December 26 in both Calgary and Edmonton, with the gold medal game scheduled for January 5, 2012 in Calgary.

“To be a top-6 player for the World Junior Team will be very good for Ryan’s development,” said Williamson.

Yet, Strome’s vision is clearly set for a return visit to Long Island.

“Having played with the guys during the summer, I know that I want to get there as soon as I can,” said Strome, who eyes Detroit Red Wing center Pavel Datsyuk as the “two-way player” he hopes to emulate on the NHL level.

Off the ice, Strome enjoys napping and playing Xbox, but he still is a self-admitted hockey rat. His passion was accentuated, during an off-ice talk with Tavares.

“John gave me a lot of tips,” said Strome. “He told me how important it is to be professional, both on and off the ice.

“He and I are very similar. We both take hockey very seriously.”

Compared to Edmonton Oiler second-year forward Jordan Eberle by Williamson, due to his “flash and dash” style of play, Strome’s NHL potential is strictly up to him.

“Ryan is a fun, loving guy with a great personality,” said Williamson. “He is a great teammate, and should be a fixture in the Islanders lineup for years to come.”

Whether he centers the team’s second line or becomes a fixture on the team’s top line with his workout buddies, Strome should be in the Islanders lineup come October.

No pressure for an 18-year-old.