FORE­FRONT AND CEN­TER

STROME, HAWKS AGREE HE SHOULD PLAY HIS NAT­U­RAL PO­SI­TION, BUT TEAM NEEDS TO SIGN HIM FIRST

Chicago Sun-Times - - BLACKHAWKS BEAT - BY BEN POPE BPOPE@SUN­TIMES.COM @BENPOPECST

The Black­hawks spent a lot of time try­ing to con­vert Dy­lan Strome from a cen­ter to a wing dur­ing the 2019-20 sea­son.

That ef­fort, quite sim­ply, failed.

“I think [Hawks coach Jeremy Col­li­ton] knows I feel that I’m most com­fort­able at cen­ter,” Strome said this week. “My play showed that. It’s just dif­fer­ent on wing; I’m not used to it. I feel like I can move the puck bet­ter at cen­ter and have the puck more on my stick and cre­ate some more plays.”

Strome spent 40 games at his nat­u­ral cen­ter po­si­tion and 18 games on the wing dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Dur­ing five-on-five play in those 40 games at cen­ter, he tal­lied six goals and 17 as­sists (23 points). That’s an av­er­age of 2.63 points per 60 min­utes, nearly match­ing his 2.73 points-per-60 rate dur­ing his break­out 2018-19 sea­son with the Hawks.

The Hawks also outscored op­po­nents 28-15 and mus­tered a 47.4% scor­ing-chance ra­tio dur­ing Strome’s min­utes at cen­ter.

On the wing, though, Strome’s re­sults were far worse. He recorded only two goals and three as­sists dur­ing five-on-five play in those 18 games — a rate of 1.46 points per 60 min­utes — and three of those five points came in a sin­gle night (Oct. 27 vs. the Kings).

The Hawks were outscored 12-8 and recorded a 46.6% scor­ing-chance ra­tio dur­ing Strome’s ice time in those games.

Col­li­ton even tried ro­tat­ing the cen­ters with whom Strome played — first Ryan Car­pen­ter, then Kirby Dach, then David Kampf, then back to Dach — with­out im­prove­ment. Af­ter Col­li­ton scratched Strome on Feb. 11 against the Oil­ers, the two had a se­ri­ous talk.

“I talked to Jeremy af­ter I got scratched in Ed­mon­ton, and we both felt that the best place for me to be was cen­ter,” Strome said. “But things hap­pen in the sea­son, and some­times you have to ad­just, and that’s part of be­ing a pro. Guys move from wing to cen­ter, cen­ter to wing, all the time. First line, sec­ond line, third line, fourth line, what­ever it may be.”

In ad­di­tion to es­sen­tially wast­ing 18 games of one of their bet­ter for­wards this past sea­son, the Hawks’ failed Strome-at-wing ex­per­i­ment also com­pli­cates their of­fen­sive depth chart mov­ing for­ward.

With Jonathan Toews still elite and Dach de­vel­op­ing re­mark­ably fast, Strome likely would be the Hawks’ No. 3 cen­ter next sea­son.

A player of Strome’s cal­iber should play more than that, and he’d have the op­por­tu­nity to do so if he could slot in next to Toews or Dach on the first or sec­ond line, but ap­par­ently he can’t.

And then there’s the ele­phant in the room: Strome’s en­try-level con­tract has ex­pired, mak­ing him a re­stricted free agent this off­sea­son.

The Hawks only have to ten­der him a qual­i­fy­ing of­fer by Oct. 7 to re­tain his rights, and Strome isn’t el­i­gi­ble to file for ar­bi­tra­tion, ei­ther. But con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions still won’t be sim­ple.

With the salary cap stay­ing flat at $81.5 mil­lion, Hawks gen­eral man­ager Stan Bow­man will strug­gle to re-sign Strome, along with Corey Craw­ford, Do­minik Kuba­lik, Drake Cag­giula and Slater Koekkoek. Can he af­ford to pay the sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars Strome’s pro­duc­tion war­rants just for him to be a third-line cen­ter?

“It’s not ideal,” Strome said. “The cap has pretty much gone up ev­ery year, ex­clud­ing maybe the lock­out, I be­lieve. Ob­vi­ously, it’s not ideal, but you’ve just got to go with what you’re dealt. There’s noth­ing I can do about that.”

Strome’s agent is Mark Guy, who’s go­ing to have a busy fall. Guy also rep­re­sents Alex Pi­etrangelo, one of the year’s high­est-pro­file un­re­stricted free agents, among many oth­ers.

Guy said Fri­day his dis­cus­sions so far with Bow­man have only de­ter­mined tim­ing, and the two will be­gin ac­tual ne­go­ti­a­tions later in the off­sea­son.

But Strome made it clear that his pref­er­ence is to stay with the Hawks.

“It’s a dream place to play,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any se­cret that I’ve had suc­cess in Chicago and I do like it there. We’ll see what hap­pens.”

In the mean­time, he’ll spend most of his off­sea­son in his subur­ban Toronto home­town, with a month or so work­ing out in Chicago with Hawks trainer Paul Good­man in the mid­dle.

In­juries also con­trib­uted to the up-and­down na­ture of Strome’s sea­son — he ad­mit­ted he “should’ve taken a lit­tle more time and waited a lit­tle bit” be­fore re­turn­ing from his Jan­uary an­kle in­jury — and he’ll hope to avoid a re­peat of that in 2020-21.

But first, he and the Hawks need to come to an agree­ment about his role — and salary — on the team.

And the un­cer­tainty about both of those things makes this off­sea­son a cru­cial one in Strome’s still-young Hawks ten­ure. ✶

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IM­AGES

Dy­lan Strome likely would be the Black­hawks’ third cen­ter next sea­son, be­hind Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach.

JA­SON FRANSON/AP

Dy­lan Strome had 23 points in 40 games at cen­ter and five points in 18 games at wing.

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