Dylan Strome has made the Coyotes Opening Night roster, and in the process answered one of the big questions Coyotes fans have been asking off-season: “will our blue-chipper make it to the blue-chip dance this time?”.
The trouble is, that’s the only question he’s answered. In 5 games in preseason he scored four points (one goal and three assists) which is not a bad return by many standards - but it’s a bad one when in front of you is the draft pick from the year after, Clayton Keller, hitting the big leagues with a bang.
It’s a bad one when unheralded FA signing Adam Clendening (who we really like here at FFH, by the way) is scoring more points than you from the blue-line.
It’s a bad one when you’re being given the chance to play with some of the best scorers on the team, players that should mesh perfectly with the strengths in your game, and half your points come in one of those five games with another assist on an empty net goal.
It is, in fact, exactly the same return as last preseason, one that led to him only scoring one point in seven games and being returned to juniors with a need to work on his game.
This, make no mistake, is a different Coyotes team. But it’s a team that isn’t sure exactly where Dylan Strome fits right now. He’s not a top-line center (that is Derek Stepan’s job to lose now and for the rest of the season).
Putting him as the 2nd line center would almost seem to have him get the role by default - it would also do a huge disservice to Christian Dvorak, too, who, despite a quiet preseason, is proven in the NHL already with last year’s 15-goal, 33-point rookie performance.
Plus, putting Dvorak in with the likes of Anthony Duclair or Tobi Rieder on one side and Lawson Crouse on the other would make a line with an effective mix of speed, skill and power.
If there’s one thing Strome doesn’t have, or hasn’t shown in this preseason, it’s speed. The problem he has is that with the Coyotes focusing on a top-six where speed kills, to be even slightly slow, or to be an average rather than great skater, will see you left behind at center, particularly in a role where you’re expected to drive play and always provide an option. And that hurts the team, and also your ability to contribute. After all, When you’re a sparrow, you’re gonna struggle to fly with eagles.
Strome right now is a sparrow. One that is left with a perch down on the 3rd and 4th line. One where there’s, frankly, a bit of a square-peg-in-round-hole situation. He’s not yet found a huge amount of chemistry with Brendan Perlini, the player you might expect him to click with the quickest... with the options on the other side being a mix of Tobi Rieder, Christian Fischer and Anthony Duclair, (Rieder being the most likely player to fit in there), Strome finds himself battling with Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson, both players popular with Rick Tocchet, for the spot.
So let’s assume that the Coyotes decide to use Strome on the third line, with, say, Perlini on one side. On the other, if not Fischer, then there is a good chance it could be Duclair or Rieder.
That gives us the same problems we’ve alluded to above. However, put him on the fourth line and promote Richardson and there’s a chance he could be looking at Zac Rinaldo on his wing in the classic “fourth line forward” stereotype (never mind that we’ve argued that the fourth line is moving away from players like Rinaldo, and that Brad Richardson would be ideal here).
Let’s just say - elite playmaker or not, the chances of Strome finding the best use of his talents with Zac Rinaldo is... a long shot. Luckily for Strome, Rinaldo won’t play in the first few games due to a suspension that hasn’t fully been served, which means that we could see any one of a rotating cast of the wingers above fit in there.
On the one hand, this is a good thing. With so many options at wing, if Rick Tocchet has the patience to rotate them through while waiting for Strome to find a player he can click with there’s bound to be one in there.
Also, with sheltered fourth-line time, Strome may be less worried about making mistakes against the other teams’ elite forwards, particularly at home where Rick Tocchet can actively shelter him from the top lines of the other team, and express himself more freely than he perhaps felt able to last season.
On the other hand, all those players with Strome fit a certain mold - one of speed and skill. One that requires Strome to be the playmaker and drive play - to seize control on the ice and show his elite-level playmaking abilities.
He hasn’t done that yet, despite once again being given every opportunity this preseason. He’s shown flashes of it, but not enough, and with players like Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson breathing down his neck for icetime and competition above him like Stepan and Dvorak (even Clayton Keller, although Keller appears to have moved from center to top-line RW alongside Stepan and Domi - a line that, we confidently predict, will be a joy to watch this season).
Those preseason questions - on whether Strome can improve his skating to the level required to play the fast, up-tempo game the Coyotes staff demand, on whether or not he can find chemistry with his fellow young stars - none have been really answered, and he remains as enigmatic as ever. His place might be at wing, it might be in the AHL (for this season at least), it may even be elsewhere. How he answers these questions over the next few weeks may go a long way to determine that place.
With the games counting from now on and junior development time run out, either Rick Tocchet needs to find the answer to what Strome needs to thrive, or Strome himself does. If he has a performance like last offseason, he’ll have to go looking in the AHL.
Either way, he needs to start finding answers, or the questions from now on, even though he’s cleared the first hurdle, will only get louder.