FOREFRONT AND CENTER
STROME, HAWKS AGREE HE SHOULD PLAY HIS NATURAL POSITION, BUT TEAM NEEDS TO SIGN HIM FIRST
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. ✶
Dylan Strome likely would be the Blackhawks’ third center next season, behind Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach.
Dylan Strome had 23 points in 40 games at center and five points in 18 games at wing.