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Absences of Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach giving Dylan Strome chance to prove he belongs at center

Strome struggled mightily on the wing last season but has moved back to center this season with the Hawks’ top two centers absent.

Dylan Strome has recorded four points in the Blackhawks’ first five games.
AP Photos

Injured center Kirby Dach has hung around the Blackhawks frequently this month, even though he likely won’t play this season after having surgery to repair a fractured right wrist.

The Hawks were able to give him a late present for his birthday Thursday with their victory Friday against the Red Wings. Before the game, forward Dylan Strome tried to give Dach a birthday shout-out, too. There was just one problem.

‘‘Kirby’s been around the room and been positive and talking,’’ Strome said. ‘‘Big birthday yesterday. I think he turned 19. I know he had a little pep in his step, and he was pretty happy with that.’’

The problem is, Dach actually turned 20.

Fortunately for Strome, the mistake can be forgiven. He has had other things on his mind, including helping the Hawks dig out of their early-season hole and hoping to seize an unexpected opportunity to prove he belongs at center.

With Dach and captain Jonathan Toews — who probably would have been the Hawks’ top two centers this season — both out for the long term, Strome has been moved back to his natural position after spending some of last season on the wing.

‘‘If we had Toews and Kirby here, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance [Strome] may be playing the wing,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said Friday. ‘‘But that’s something, of course, you talk to him about, and he was prepared to come in here and play wing. [It] allows him to play further up the lineup. But, obviously, now he has the opportunity to play center. He’s played well.’’

Most centers have an easier time playing wing than vice versa, but that’s not the case for Strome, who struggled mightily with the switch last season. He averaged 2.63 points per 60 minutes at center and 1.46 points per 60 minutes at wing. Plus, the Hawks outscored opponents 28-15 with Strome at center but were outscored 12-8 with him at wing.

‘‘Last year was probably the longest stretch in my life that I played wing, and it’s something to get used to,’’ Strome said. ‘‘You’re still in the NHL with great players and great linemates, so you have to adjust whenever you have to. But everyone has a position where they feel comfortable in, and [center] is obviously mine.’’

Back in the middle between Dominik Kubalik and Philipp Kurashev through the first five games of 2021, Strome has been solid. He has four points, including primary assists to set up goals Friday by Patrick Kane and Calvin de Haan, and has controlled possession decently well, ranking seventh on the team with a 52.6% on-ice scoring-chance ratio (30 for, 27 against).

Even his faceoff performance, long a weakness in his résumé at center, has improved. His winning percentage is up from 47.7% last season to 55.6% this season, albeit in a very small sample size.

‘‘Gaining that confidence from Jeremy is huge,’’ Strome said. ‘‘He can trust me to put me out for faceoffs, whether it’s in the ‘D’ zone or ‘O’ zone, and get an extra shift here or there. If you can win those faceoffs and be reliable in your own zone, then you’ll get that extra ice time and be out there at key situations. That’s what every player wants.’’

Still, Strome’s chances to stick at center remain murky. Although Toews’ future is up in the air — his absence from player introductions Friday, while other injured players such as Alex Nylander and Brent Seabrook were present, was a worrisome sign — he might come back at some point. Dach, meanwhile, will be an integral part of the Hawks’ 2021-22 plans.

And, more imminently, recently signed center Carl Soderberg has begun practicing with the Hawks and could displace someone from the lineup soon.

For now, however, Strome is making the most of the Hawks’ needs at his favorite position.