NHL players are always looking for ways to improve their game. The need for speed and strength is a must, but in the past few years more skaters have hired skills coaches to hone their puck skills, and more recently we have seen players try vision testing. A 2014 study by a team of psychologists showed baseball players at the University of California were able to improve their batting average and their ability to read an eye chart by doing vision training.
The training come from the processing centres of the brain, not necessarily the optics of the eye. When you stop to think about how athletes improve their abilities by repetition, or their speed and strength by always working out their muscles, it only makes sense our vision can improve the more we challenge it or test it.
Ryan Strome has incorporated vision testing into his summer training, and after signing a two-year extension with the Oilers, I spoke to him on my radio show about that, the penalty kill and his new role as the Oilers player representative.
Strome took a break from the NHLPA meeting to do the interview, so we started by discussing the NHLPA summer meetings.
Gregor: Are you interested in Collective Bargaining or was it by a process of elimination that you got this gig?
Strome: Um, a little bit of both. I’ve always come to the meetings and then when [Mark] Letestu got traded someone had to step up. A lot of the stuff is in Toronto and I know a lot of people in the NHLPA so I thought I would step up and do it. I think it is a great opportunity to learn, and one day you can probably take some great life experiences that I’ve learned here to whatever I do next.
Gregor: I know all of the fans and everyone else is saying hopefully the NHL can avoid a fourth lockout. That should be the goal. Everyone has a goal to win the cup, how about we have a goal to avoid a lockout?
Strome: Yeah, I think that everyone is on the same page with that concept. I’m not too familiar with the whole process, I wasn’t around for the last lockout but it’s definitely very informative and everyone wants to play of course. The fans want to watch, everyone wants to play, everyone wants to see hockey. It’s a great sport and that is definitely the goal, there is no question.
Gregor: Are you a big movie buff?
Strome: Not really, from time to time, but I wouldn’t say a big buff no.
Gregor: Have you seen Major League?
***How has he not seen Major League? That is one of the best sports movies of all-time. When he comes out of the bullpen to Wild Thing is an iconic scene.***
Gregor: Okay, your one job this summer, is to watch this movie.
Strome: I’ll put it on my list.
Gregor: Put it on your list of movies to watch and this does relate to you a little bit, because when you watch the movie, there is a character called Ricky Vaughn. He learned as he was pitching that his eyes weren’t the best, so he had to get glasses. You don’t need glasses, but last year you and I talked briefly about vision testing and now it is something you are doing. What are you working on in with your vision training and have you noticed a difference already?
Strome: I got interested in this is because a couple of guys on our team were inquiring about it earlier on in the year. I figured that if they were doing it, I should do it. I’ve learned a lot. It’s kind of getting your eyes to work together. I don’t think it is the magic fix to everything in your life that’s wrong, but I think any professional advantage you get can, seeing a specialist or this, I think there is a benefit to it and to try it out. Not just for hockey, but I think everyday life and it’s been something that is interesting to me and something I figured I would give a try. Your eyes are everything and if there is a chance to improve it I’m going to take it. It’s been pretty cool so far.
Gregor: Are you working on the DynaVision board where you stand in front of it and you have to hit the lights as the light up with your left and right hands?
Strome: There’s tons of things. There’s drawing pictures with both hands, just feeling where you are in space with your eyes closed, with your eyes open, there’s a whole bunch of different things. Anything helps and obviously seeing the puck and seeing the play is kind of everything, so if that gives you even the slightest advantage, it’s time well worth it.
Gregor: So as a centreman and a playmaker, if you can see the play off to the side a little bit quicker, and we’re talking about a split second faster, it could give you a bit more time to react and make a play?
Strome: Yeah, absolutely. I just think the better your eyes are, the less hard your eyes have to work and you can focus on everything else. If your eyes are working up to their potential or up to speed, things should process quicker in your head. I’m still just trying it out and stuff like that, so we’ll see what happens. Like I say, if it helps, it helps and if not I gave it a shot. It’s interesting a lot of guys have actually been doing it and it’s an interesting concept; something that’s kind of new.
Gregor: I think it’s safe to say the last 30 games of the season were easily your best. You looked a lot more comfortable in every aspect of the game and specifically on the penalty kill. That wasn’t a role you had at the NHL before. In the final 20 games of the year, the Oilers penalty kill was 90% after really struggling through the first sixty games. How did you feel on the penalty kill, and why do you think it worked well for you?
Strome: I just think being involved in the team more helped. There are so many great players on our team, skilled players, you have to find a little bit of a role. I was kind of put into that position and a little bit of trial and error by the coaches I’m sure. I think if you have a good skillset, a good understanding of the game you can help out in different areas. That’s what I tried to do. Championship teams, good teams, there are players who have to do a role and do it well and take pride in it. I think towards the end of the year the guys on the PK did that and had some struggles in the beginning but we changed a few things. Like I said, it is part of a becoming a good team. Look at teams that win now; everyone is dedicated to what they do. Everyone is just as important. You’ve got 23 guys and I think having the ability to do different things is a big part of that.
Gregor: Did playing on the penalty kill help you in the defensive zone five-on-five?
Strome: I think it helps you all of the time, just getting into the game. Those are hard minutes, they’re crucial minutes. They’re minutes that your teammates really reward you for. When you clear the puck, you get off of the ice, you win a faceoff, you block a shot, it makes you feel engaged in the game, you’re ready to go. I think it helped me maybe getting engaged in the game earlier and feel a little more useful to the team so to speak.
Gregor: You want to be a guy who can contribute five-on-five and on the power play at times as well. Do you have a skills coach this summer? Are you working on anything different which you hope is going to help your offense?
Strome: There is always things to work on. I mean luckily enough there is a ton of resources, there is a ton of players, a ton of people always looking to help out and give you their business service. I think it’s just what works best for you, whether it’s shooting pucks in your driveway or going to the gym, stick handling, shooting pucks, jumping over whatever you’ve got to do, stick handling with pylons, everyone is a little bit different. I think it’s just trying to find what works and like I said, luckily enough the resources are available. I think over the years I’ve kind of mixed and mashed things, trying to find out what works. The summer is a great time to take out the what ifs and the questions marks in your game and try to fine tune those skills. This summer is no different for me in that I’ve always looked to try different things.
Gregor: Have you spoke with Todd McLellan? Do you expect to come to training camp and start at centre?
Strome: That’s what I think. I think that we both felt I was most comfortable playing centre. At the end of the day you want to find what works best for you and the team, obviously Nuge [Ryan Nugent-Hopkins] and Connor [McDavid] had some great success together. So obviously there is little bit of a hole on the third line and hopefully, we have some guys that can fill in there, myself included to play those minutes, play against some good players and do a good job on both ends of the ice. We definitely can score some goals, so it’s just a matter of playing that complete game and I think that I’m happy with my game and where it’s at the end of the year.
Gregor: When I spoke with Drake Caggiula he said the goal for him is to find a consistent spot for himself on the team next year. He really didn’t have anybody who he played any extended period of time with. That’s similar to you. I know very few lines play together all of the time, but at least as a duo, is that something that you’re hoping to find as well? Somebody you can play 400 or 500 even strength minutes with?
Strome: Yeah, I think that at the end of the year we started to find that a little bit, we tried to keep the lines more consistent, with the centremen at least. I think it definitely helps, but at the same time it’s a healthy balance. If things aren’t working you’ve got to try to find a spark. I guess that’s up to the coaches. That’s obviously a challenge every team faces to find the healthy balance of being comfortable, but also being ready to go and playing good, finding that spark. So that’s up to the coaches. It is a tough job in that respect and I’m just happy I’m a player because it must be a lot of stress to find that magic combination that works.
***Strome played 988 5×5 minutes last year. His most common linemate was Jujhar Khaira (263 minutes) and Jesse Puljujarvi (237). He only played 26% of his time with Khaira and 24% with Puljujarvi. It would benefit Strome, and likely the Oilers, if they can find some chemistry and production with at least one linemate and spend at least 50% of their 5×5 time together.***
Gregor: Last summer was the first time you had to deal with being traded to a new team and come to a new city. I know you were really excited about the opportunity, but just fitting into the group and maybe fitting into the city. Did it take a while for you to get comfortable in your new environment and do you think this year will be easier for you because you’re not dealing with the newness?
Strome: Yes and no. We had a tough start. I think that everything was then magnified and you want to make a good impression. You want to be on a winning team and when things don’t go well you get frustrated, individually and as a team. I think, as much as it’s about being comfortable, it’s about getting off to a good start individually and as a group. I think after that everything takes care of itself. Winning is fun, it’s what we all want to do. We want to come to the rink after a big win, night in and night out, and hopefully we can get off of the ground running. I will be more comfortable, yes, but getting off to a good start will make everyone better.
I know goalies and other athletes have been using Dynavision testing for years. You can try it out at ATHX Performance in Edmonton if you’re interested. The speed of hockey is always increasing and vision testing can help players compute things quicker, so it only makes sense to see more NHL skaters trying it.
Strome could become very valuable to the Oilers in a 3C role. He likely won’t produce huge offence, but if he can produce 34-38 points, be one of their top penalty killers, and chip in on the second unit PP, and be good defensively at EV, he will play a vital role in 2018/2019. At the end of the season he spoke about getting comfortable as a third line centre. Much of that is mentally and accepting you won’t be a main offensive player anymore. It is difficult to accept for players like Strome, who was a 100-point guy in junior and always looked upon to produce. It isn’t easy to just adjust to being a PK player, solid defensively and chip in now and again offensively. For most offensive players they believe their main job is to produce, which it is, and when they don’t they lose confidence.
Strome seemed much more at peace with the realization he can still help the team without producing points.
He didn’t need vision training to see the big picture — McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the offensive centres in Edmonton — but his vision training could help him become a very valuable third line centre in Edmonton. Just ask the Washington Capitals and their fans how important Lars Eller was to their Stanley Cup victory.
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