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Dylan Strome looking to finish Blackhawks' season strong

Greg Boysen Avatar
April 4, 2022

It has been a strange NHL journey for Chicago Blackhawks center Dylan Strome. At just age 25, he was drafted third overall, traded, got a fresh start, fell out of favor with a head coach, and is now enjoying one of the best runs of his six-season career.

The Arizona Coyotes drafted Strome with the third pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, right after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. He turned pro at the tail end of the 2016-17 season after completing his successful junior career with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he was a teammate of Alex DeBrincat.

After playing much of the 2017-18 season in the American Hockey League (AHL), he became a full-time NHL player the following season. However, he was traded to the Blackhawks, with Brendan Perlini, for Nick Schmaltz on Nov. 25, 2018. After the deal, he enjoyed a great stretch after being put on a line with DeBrincat and Patrick Kane, scoring 17 goals and 51 points in 58 games.

Strome’s production dipped during the 2019-20 season with 12 goals and 38 points in 58 games. The 2020-21 season was a struggle as he was up and down the lineup and even found himself as a healthy scratch. He scored just nine goals and a career-low 17 points in 40 games. Many felt the young forward would be traded during the summer of 2021, but he was still on the team come opening night. However, he was not out of former head coach Jeremy Colliton’s doghouse. When he was in the lineup, he got limited minutes on the bottom six.

Things changed for Strome when Derek King replaced the fired Colliton after 12 games. It took King some time to find the right place for Strome, but eventually, he put him back between DeBrincat and Kane in early January. When he returned to the lineup on Jan. 1, he had three goals and seven points in 20 games. In the 37 games since, he has 17 goals and 36 points and scored his 20th goal of the season during Sunday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Coyotes.

“He works without the puck now,” King said of the difference in Strome’s game now. “It’s not always perfect, but he is working. (After) turnovers, you got a backcheck, and he’s the guy that’s back. He’s got his stick in the lane, and it gets deflected out of the way and breaks up a play. These are the things he wasn’t doing.”

Strome admitted on Sunday that knowing he will be in the lineup every night has done wonders for his game.

“Sometimes, when you’re not playing a lot or in and out of the lineup, you never know when you’ll be back in or if you did enough to stay in,” he said. “It’s not a good place to be kind of after a game. It’s obviously frustrating if you’re not playing a lot and maybe make a couple of mistakes and then potentially not be in the lineup the next game; you can get a good hunch when you’re not going to be in. In that sense, it’s a little easier on the stress levels, for sure, just to come to the rink, and you’ve got a job to do and know where you’re going to be slotted.”

The 25-year-old center went on to say that he has benefited from the challenges he faced this season, and they have made him a better player.

“Coming from junior where you in a position where you know you’re going to be in the lineup every game playing a certain number of minutes and have the puck on your stick all the time, and then you get to the NHL, it’s not really a guarantee,” said Strome. “I think it was good for me to go through that a little bit. I’ve gone through it for a while where I’ve been on both sides where you’re in the top six and on the power play, or you’re out of the lineup or maybe on the fourth line.

“I think you kind of prepare for the different scenarios you’re going to face, and you want to work up to where you’re going to be playing. I feel like this is where I want to be playing with the spot I’m in, and you’ve got to produce and help the team win to show that you should stay there.”

One of the most significant improvements in Strome’s game has come at the faceoff dot. When centering a line with DeBrincat and Kane, you want to have the puck as much as possible, and winning offensive zone draws go a long way toward accomplishing this. Entering this season, Strome had a career faceoff winning percentage (FO%) of 45.2 and never finished a season higher than 48.4%. Through 57 games this season, he has a career-high 52.8 FO%. Only Jonathan Toews has a higher FO% among Blackhawks who have taken at least 100 faceoffs this season.

Strome’s improvement at the dot gives Toews a reprieve from having to take all the important draws, but it allows the Strome line to maintain puck possession and be the team’s offensive driver. This gives hope to another former third overall pick, Kirby Dach, who has been dismal in the faceoff circle. Whatever Strome has done to become better at winning draws, he needs to teach Dach.

Strome has faced criticism since landing in Chicago because he seems only to produce when playing with DeBrincat and Kane. Any time he has been dropped elsewhere in the lineup, the points just haven’t come. While it is great to know he will produce on the top line, it wouldn’t hurt to be able to get those numbers when playing elsewhere in the lineup.

“People are going to have their own opinions,” Strome said. “I think pretty much since this line had been a thing since early January, it’s been pretty good. That’s kind of the sample size I’ve got to work with. Let the numbers speak for themselves. The chances for and chances against are usually in a positive manner after each game. That’s obviously a good thing, and then I’ve been scoring some goals.”

King loves the production he has been getting from the top line but wouldn’t mind seeing Strome put up these numbers playing with other linemates down the road.

“It would be really huge for him,” said the Blackhawks’ interim head coach. “It seems to be a good fit. I’ve had different centermen with Kaner – I’ve tried Dacher there and Tazer there. I think the three of them just seem to click, so there’s no point in changing it.

“If a Reichel comes up, where do I put him? The right thing would (be) to probably put him (on Kane’s line). That’s what they might want to see, so I’d have to find a line for Stromer. That’ll be a hard decision to make because Stromer’s finishing off pretty good here. Those guys need to continue to finish strong and still compete and play the right way. They’ll get their points, but they need to do the right things.”

The Blackhawks went from looking to trade Strome to wondering what his next contract could look like. He will be a restricted free agent this summer, so they have exclusive negotiation rights. They can still ultimately trade those rights, but at just 25, Strome could be an excellent value for a rebuilding team.

General manager Kyle Davidson has plenty of options heading into the offseason. He can give Strome a qualifying offer of $3.6 million per season, go higher, or let an arbitration hearing decide his next deal. Or he can choose to move on and see what the trade market bears. Meanwhile, Strome is not too concerned with this now. He is focused on finishing out the final month of the 2021-22 season.

“Just finish the last games strong,” he said of his goal. “If you start focusing on that, it’s so far out of your control. Like I said before, no one knows what will happen next season or throughout the summer. So, you’ve just got to go with these last 13 games, I think, play hard and play strong and do what you can to prove to them that you want to be a part of it.”

King won’t let Strome rest on his laurels. He wants him to build off his achievements to become an even better player next season.

“Where he started and to finish where he’s at right now, and he still has some room for improvement, he has to continue just to play the way he’s played and played hard,” King said after Sunday’s loss to the Coyotes. “I’ll be in his ear about, this isn’t the time to pack it in. This is the time to ramp it up here, get going.”

Strome’s improvement this season has been a wonderful storyline. He has gone from a player who was in desperate need of a change of scenery to one that might be a key part of a rebuilding franchise. Regardless of how his story in Chicago ends, his resiliency has been fun to watch and easy to admire. It could be the very thing you need on a team that will be full of young players going forward.

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