Dylan Strome doesn’t want to play major junior anymore, but he’s not AHL eligible. That puts big pressure on him to make the Coyotes.
Connor McDavid, fast on his way to becoming the face of the NHL, understandably attracted a lot of attention at BioSteel’s 2016 Pro Hockey Camp this week in Toronto. Excited kids followed him everywhere he went. So did reporters and photographers. It was hard to tell them apart from the kids. But as he fiddled around working on his skills Tuesday, he had a worthy playmate. His old Erie Otters teammate, Dylan Strome, was out there, too, stride for stride. They worked together on some passing drills. They chatted. They competed in a raucous target shooting contest, much to the tykes’ delight from the rafters of St. Michael’s College School Arena. What stood out: Strome looked like he belonged out there, even with McDavid. We know No. 97’s raw tools are among the very best in the NHL already, but Strome flashed a lot of skill, too.
It’s easy for the casual fan to forget about Strome. In the famous 2015 draft class that led off with generational talents McDavid and Eichel, Strome was “the other guy,” picked third, deemed not quite ready for the NHL. But just because he needed one more year of seasoning, mainly to fill out and improve his skating, doesn’t mean he lacks franchise-player potential. In THN Future Watch 2016, our panel of NHL executives and scouts ranked Strome then No. 1 overall prospect in the world. Strome had a strong 2015-16 camp with the Coyotes but wound up cut in early October and returned to the OHL without a nine-game trial. All he could do was tear up the league, just as Jonathan Drouin did when the Tampa Bay Lightning returned him to junior in 2013-14. Strome went off for 111 points in 56 games, improving on the per-game pace he set with 129 points in 68 games the season prior. “Nothing left to prove” has become an overused term in prospect chatter, but it exists for a reason. It sure seems like Strome has little left to accomplish, at least individually, in major junior. He doesn’t turn 20 until next March, however, meaning he can’t play in the AHL. That puts him and the Coyotes in a tough spot. Strome
admitted in a recent Canadian Press interview he felt like he was “done with junior.” That puts pressure on him to deliver with a massive camp and pre-season. I decided to get meta with it Tuesday and ask him for a quote…on that quote. “It’s a privilege to go to any NHL camp, and I’m going in there to try and make the team,” he said. “Everyone going to that camp is trying to make the team. That’s my main goal. You don’t want to think about anything else. You want to play in the NHL.” Safe answer. So the kid speaks in cliches. That’s OK. He’s just 19. His interview game will round into form soon enough. What matters more is how his hockey skills fit into the Coyotes’ plans. And now just might be the right time to mix Strome into the pot. He has NHL size already and 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds along with pro-level offensive awareness, shooting and playmaking ability. That blends nicely with a Desert Dogs team that (a) has needed a true No. 1 center for years; (b) just bought out Antoine Vermette, a guy holding down one of the pivot jobs in the top-nine forward group; and (c) has some promising triggermen on the wings in Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and even the freshly signed Jamie McGinn. The conditions also seem right for a Strome debut because the Coyotes appear ready to start improving in the standings. Their farm system already graded out as No. 1 in Future Watch, and that was before they added two more clue-chippers, Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun, in the 2016 draft’s first round. It’s no wonder new GM John Chayka felt OK signing defenseman Alex Goligoski to a big contract and bringing in McGinn. “It’s definitely a changing of the guard,” Strome said. “I haven’t been there for the past little bit, but a lot of people in the organization and the fans are excited. They’re excited about the prospects they’ve got coming up in the organization. They’re taking the steps in the right direction. Everything is coming into place, and hopefully I can be a part of that.” Strome is the type of player who can make others around him better. If he’s as ready for the NHL as he believes he is, he can make a significant impact and challenge for the Calder Trophy. And who knows how much better the Coyotes might be if everything goes right for him? The Pacific Division ejected two playoff teams from 2015, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and replaced them with the L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks in 2016. Things in that division are topsy turvy. It feels like every team has a chance. Especially with a wild card in Arizona like Chayka, the league’s youngest GM at 27 and a big proponent of advanced statistics. Strome likes Chayka’s youthful relatability and is open minded, at least, about playing under a stat-head GM. “I’m a big stats guy myself,” Strome said. “I like knowing what everyone has or had in their previous years or this year. I don’t really understand fully what Corsi and everything means. You see a lot of stuff about numbers like that, shot attempts, puck possession. It’s different. I don’t know enough about it to say I do or don’t like it. But the game is changing into that. A lot of things are going to be based on that. If that’s the way it’s going, hopefully my numbers can be good. I don’t understand how to do better at it on the ice or worse, but it’s cool that the game is getting so technical. That’s definitely where the game’s going.” Strome is in fact a big stats guy. I verified it. While discussing his reverence for franchise stalwart Shane Doan, whose every word Strome admits to hanging onto, Strome rhymed off that Doan’s 28 goals in 2015-16 were “pretty amazing.” I checked and, yep, Doan scored 28. So it appears Strome knows his traditional numbers. As for the advanced ones? He needs work but, whether he knows it or not, his game is built for sustaining possession. In theory, he could mature into a Corsi darling. When that happens remains up in the air. What if Strome turns out to still not be ready for the big time? It’s a question no one wants to have to answer. For now, Strome would rather visualize himself in the Coyotes lineup all season, especially Friday, Oct. 21. That’s when Arizona visits Brooklyn to face the New York Islanders. There’s no one he looks forward to facing more than his brother Ryan.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin