When Blackhawks Jonathan Toews announced he was sitting out the 2020-21 season for health reasons it surprised a lot of people. What was the team supposed to do without their captain and number one center? At the outset of last year’s shortened season, Chicago appeared to have a plan, but things likely didn’t go the way the coaching staff drew them up.
The obvious path forward for last season was to give the top spot at the center to Dylan Strome. He was the logical choice for the Chicago Blackhawks to step in and fill the gap between star wingers Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. Unfortunately for Strome and the team, that didn’t go as planned.
Last year, and even entering the offseason after Chicago predictably missed the playoffs, the idea of trading Strome seemed like it was kind of silly. As badly depleted as Chicago’s ranks had become, moving the best passer behind only Patrick Kane was generally seen as a bad idea. Yet, Strome was scratched for a couple of games as the season wound down, and that’s generally not positive for players that are touted as to-tier talent, as Strome generally is viewed.
Things haven’t really improved for the former 2015 3rd overall draft pick. Strome isn’t a bad player, quite contrary, but for whatever reason he’s been sort of underwhelming. Last year, Strome competed with Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev to hold down the spot on the top line. None of them are really top-line talent, but the fact that Strome was in the mix was meaningful. Not so much anymore. This is kind of highlighted by a tweet from The Athletic’s Scott Power’s yesterday before the final preseason game.
Basically, Strome is now on the list of players who may or may not be good enough to play on the fourth line. For a team that hasn’t legitimately made the playoffs for years, that’s a harsh criticism of where the organization views Strome’s contributions. At the same time, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment.
There are definitely reasons that don’t have to do with Strome that might explain his place on the team last year relative to this year. A big one, Jonathan Toews looks to be back in the lineup. With the captain back, Strome won’t even be an afterthought for the top spot at center.
The presence of Kirby Dach as a potential long-term replacement for Toews is very important for planning the organization’s long-term trajectory. Basically, the team wants Dach to the future, not Strome. Now that Dach is back to 100% health, the team should reap the benefits of his play. While Strome is only 24, he’s not the guy pencilled in to lead the team to Stanley Cup glory after Toews steps down. Between Toews and Dach, that’s two spots at center spoken for.
We also can’t forget that Bowman brought in Henrik Borgstrom and Tyler Johnson. Of those new acquisitions, Johnson is more reliable at the faceoff dot than Strome, and brings a different hard-nosed style of play, whereas Borgstrom is like another version of Strome-a gifted puck-mover. Chicago has options at center.
Johnson seems like he could be a great fourth-line center, albeit an expensive one at $5,000,000 per year. That’s a lot of money to hand out to a guy rounding out the bottom-6. In fact, it’s almost twice what Strome is making. So that means Johnson can’t really be justified as an energy guy on the team’s bottom line. That kind of leaves Strome as the final player in the puzzle then, but is that really the right fit?
The problem there is that, it’s really important for a center to reiably win faceoffs, especially when they aren’t expected to score very much, and Strome isn’t good as the dot. Even though his possession metrics are almost always good, he’s only had one season where he’s been above 50% at faceoffs. That’s not good enough.
At the same time, it isn’t hard to make the argument that Chicago now has enough depth that they can spread around offensively-minded players, such as Strome, to give the team more options offensively. That’s possible, but it doesn’t explain why Strome was being scratched at the end of the season last year.
I’m not a betting man, but I’d say that Strome may have played his way into Jeremy Colliton’s dog house. If Strome can’t play his way up the lineup, there’s a good chance that he gets traded. Ultimately, it might best for everyone if he does get moved, but hopefully, he can have a meaningful impact for Chicago and justify his (almost) inevitable spot in the lineup.