As January winds down, the Chicago Blackhawks are on the outside looking in when it comes to securing a spot in the playoffs. All signs point towards them being sellers at the Mar. 21 trade deadline. So, who will they keep and who will they sell to the highest bidder? This Blackhawks’ team could be a whole lot different in the 2022-23 campaign, as they look to rebuild or at least retool to become more competitive.
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With all this in mind, today I’d like to discuss center Dylan Strome, who’s been the target of trade talks for a few seasons now. For many reasons, Strome has struggled to find his fit with the team, and the Blackhawks have been openly shopping him. But they also haven’t exactly been putting him in a position to succeed. His production has therefore suffered, and so has his trade value.
Until the last handful of games.
Now all of the sudden the 24-year-old has turned things around and looks like a legitimate top line center. So much so, one could make an argument to retain him. Let’s look at a few reasons why the Blackhawks should consider keeping Strome in the fold.
Strome’s Evolution & Resurgence
Last season, Jonathan Toews was out all season and Kirby Dach missed all but 18 games. This is when Strome was supposed to step up and take on that No. 1 center role. He wasn’t able to do that. Former head coach Jeremy Colliton instead focused on Strome’s defensive deficiencies. He favored other players who were stronger in that area to take on the top centering responsibilities. Strome found himself playing mostly among the bottom-six forwards. He was then shifted to the wing, and towards the end of the season was a frequent healthy scratch.
This season, Strome has dealt with similar adversity with both Colliton and interim head coach Derek King. To his credit, King has given Strome more opportunities to prove himself, while also working with him to improve his play off the puck. For the most part, it’s worked. According to Mark Lazerus of The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn’s player cards have Strome worth 9.2 fewer goals than the average player, and his 2.1 goals against per 60 average is better than former Blackhawk and two-way player Brandon Saad. Sure, he’s being protected in a more sheltered role. But it’s improvement, and it’s paying dividends on the other side of the puck (from ‘Lazerus: Maddening as he can be, hanging on to Dylan Strome is better for the Blackhawks’, The AthleticCHI – 1/28/22).
In Strome’s last nine games, he’s been on a tear offensively. He’s been a regular member of the top power play unit, and for the last seven games he’s been deployed as the top line center in between Brandon Hagel and Patrick Kane. He’s contributed four goals and seven assists, including a hat trick and a four-point game against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 26. His faceoff success rate has been a phenomenal 62%. Strome has been working hard to improve in this area. For the season, he has a 55.7 FO%. His career average before that was 47%. It appears he’s finally found his groove in this department, which is a pretty important component of being a top center.
Blackhawks Need More Depth at Center
Who else do the Blackhawks have to contribute down the middle moving forward? Obviously there’s Toews. But Toews’ contract is up after next season. Who knows if he will choose to re-sign with the Blackhawks. Heck, I’m getting ahead of myself. Toews is currently in concussion protocol, and coming off a full season of not playing due to health issues.
The captain’s future is certainly murky. Will he be forced to retire? And if not, can he maintain the level of play we’ve all become accustomed to from him? We’ve seen from his struggles this season this is likely not possible. At this point in his career Toews should probably have less responsibility, perhaps in a third-line center role.
Dach is another option at center. He was slated to be Toews’ heir when he was drafted third overall by the Blackhawks in the 2019 NHL Draft. But so far he hasn’t shown he can live up to this expectation. There are some great things about Dach’s game. He physical and strong on the puck. He’s has a ton of skill and a high hockey IQ. He creates chances for himself and his linemates. But he can’t finish, and he can’t win faceoffs. His career faceoff percentage is an abysmal 35.3%. It’s unclear where Dach will fit in moving forward.
Then there’s the Blackhawks’ top prospect Lukas Reichel. He lined up as the top line center for the two games he was called up for in mid-January. He certainly looked the part in that small sample size. But he’s also played on the wing most of his career so far. A transition into the NHL could see him better suited to play wing. Most importantly, while he likely has a bright future with the Blackhawks, he’s still an unknown commodity.
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This uncertainty at center is where having someone like Strome around could come in awfully handy.
Would Strome Take a Hometown Discount?
Strome is a restricted free agent after this season and would have to receive a qualifying offer of at least $3.6 million. Some might say he’s not worth it for that kind of money, and he’ll likely be looking for more money and a longer-term deal.
But here’s the thing. Nobody else in the league has been interested in taking on Strome or his contract for over a year now. Sure, his recent production could change someone’s mind. But what will the Blackhawks likely get for him? In The Athletic’s cited piece above, Mark Lazerus said an NHL executive indicated Strome would be worth a third-round draft pick on the market. That’s it. A lowly third-round pick is another unknown commodity, when you already know what you have in Strome.
The Ontario native has made it clear he loves Chicago and would like to stay here. He believes he can contribute for the Blackhawks. He’d obviously love to stay on the same team with his long-time friend, Alex DeBrincat. And playing alongside Kane is something not many players are going to complain about. Let’s face it; he’s built some good chemistry with teammates in his four seasons with the Blackhawks.
So why wouldn’t he be willing to take a hometown discount? Would Strome accept his qualifying offer amount and sign a contract for just one or two seasons? This would give him a chance to stay put, and prove himself as a member of the new core for the Blackhawks.
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In the meantime, the the Blackhawks could use him as an insurance policy of sorts. Yes, there’s not much flexibility with Strome. He can’t be moved around throughout the lineup. He needs to play with top players in order to be successful. But if the organization is willing to commit to that, Strome could buy them some time until they can better round out their roster for the future.
The next few months are certainly going to be interesting as the Blackhawks determine who they are going to build around, and who they are going to trade for picks and prospects in the name of future success. Either way, Strome’s recent play has made him a top contender for both. I believe his value is best to stay with the team.