The hills in Arizona are alive with the sound of discontent and uncertainty.
Uncertainty, because the Arizona Coyotes’ “next great center,” Dylan Strome, has so far been anything but at the NHL level. While he’s lit up the league once again this year at the lower level of the OHL, his performance at the NHL level has been unconvincing, with alarm bells ringing over lingering concerns regarding his inability to improve skating sufficiently and an unimpressive showing at development camp this summer, despite engaging a skating coach. Even the thought that it might be worth selling high on him this season, a case that we made earlier this year, isn’t completely unreasonable.
Why Not Center?
The defenders of Dylan Strome point to his size and playmaking ability. They argue that his skating doesn’t have to be that good because it’s not the key part of his game. They argue, too, that his playmaking ability outweighs his skating issues, and that he doesn’t need to drive play with his skating.
The problem is, with the role of center in the NHL changing massively the past few years, skating is now just as key to being a center as being able to win faceoffs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a sniper, a playmaker, or a power forward - playing center in an NHL top-six comes with the expectation that you’re able to move effortlessly about the ice, find space, and drive your team forward in both zones.
There’s also the issue that nobody really knows how good Dylan Strome is defensively at an NHL level. When playing in the OHL, the competition and systems he’s facing are often geared to stop him rather than go the other way, which if anything means he’s sheltered against opposition attacks. His whole role is to get the puck to whatever lucky sniper the Erie Otters have decided they want on his line and let them do a lot of the goal-scoring work. A top-six center in the NHL needs to be just as good going backward as forwards, a third or second line center (realistically the ceiling for where Strome can be slotted into the roster this season) even more so.
Essentially what the Yotes have here is a big center who’s been able to use his size far more easily in juniors than he has been in the NHL, playing a one-dimensional role, who they want to plug into a position that at the NHL level, is far more multifaceted and more importantly one that he’s shown a lack of ability to adjust to.
The Coyotes have form here. Way back in 1999 they drafted a big playmaking center in the first round who was posting impressive numbers in juniors thanks to a combination of size and playmaking skill. One that had issues with skating and attitude, but that they thought could be overcome with natural playmaking talent. His name was Scott Kelman, and well... his career path doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
Now, there’s no way I’m saying that Strome will wash out of the NHL before being cut midseason from the UK league for not having a good enough work ethic before retiring in his late 20s. But, the parallels between Strome and Kelman in the way they play(ed) and the issues brought up that have, so far, stopped Strome reaching the NHL are fascinating.
But what if there was a way to negate those issues for the Coyotes?
There might be, and Rick Tocchet is arguably one of the ideal coaches to do it.
Why not Wing?
Move Strome to wing and convert him into one of the NHL’s newer phenomena when it comes to player type: the playmaking power winger.
At 6’3 and 200lbs, Strome has the size to play a power forward game, and on the wing, both his skating and questionable two-way ability can be negated by the fact that, as a top-six winger, his role will be made much more simple - win pucks, hold off the opposition using his physical size, and feed snipers and a skilled center on his line. It’s also far easier, once again, to play as a wing in the top-six than a center. Strome’s undoubted playmaking ability can be used more effectively without him actually having to worry as much about skating and movement, particularly if he’s converted to playing a much more simple straight-ahead, up-and-down game.
This is by no means a transition that is guaranteed to work. Apart from anything else, it needs the player to commit to moving position, adapt his game, and perhaps most importantly, find a spot on the top six, but that 2nd line RW slot could be Strome’s home if he’s willing to do the work for it.
The thing is, though, in the 3rd year since his draft year, and with the vast majority of the rest of his first-round cohort already having become significant NHL contributors, time is potentially running out for Dylan Strome. If he wants to contribute to the Coyotes in the best possible way, he might have to make some fundamental changes to do it.
Doing so, while radical, could benefit both parties sooner rather than later.