With the pressure on to avoid a training-camp holdout, the Blackhawks reached contract terms with center Dylan Strome just in time Sunday.
The Hawks signed Strome to a two-year contract with a $3 million cap hit, ending his nearly three-month stretch as a restricted free agent.
Strome has been in Chicago for weeks, fulfilling his quarantine requirements in case such a scenario unfolded, and will be with the team for the first on-ice practice session Monday morning at Fifth Third Arena.
“We believe Dylan is ready to take the next step in his career and build off the strides he has made in his first two years in Chicago,” general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement.
“He has great offensive instincts and brings creativity and skill to our team. We are thrilled he is now signed and able to join us tomorrow for the start of training camp.”
His presence will be vital for a forward group that has lost Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander to long-term injuries or illnesses within the last few weeks.
Strome, 23, may well be the first-line center for the Jan. 13 regular-season opener. He’ll compete in camp with a strange, crowded group — offseason additions Carl Soderberg, Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark, returning fourth-liners Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf, now-healthy veterans Andrew Shaw and Zack Smith and prospect Philipp Kurashev — for the job.
Strome has had 51 and 38 points in 58 games with the Hawks in each of the last two seasons, ranking fifth on the team both years.
His chemistry with former juniors linemate Alex DeBrincat and crafty passing skills quickly elevated his reputation from draft bust in Arizona to integral young core member in Chicago.
But he struggled down the stretch of the 2019-20 regular season and in the playoffs, later admitting he’d returned from a January 2020 ankle injury too quickly.
That poor finish and the leaguewide impact of the flattened salary cap, which squashed many free agents’ potential earnings, put Strome in a low-leverage position. Strome’s longtime former agent then left the hockey industry in November, further complicating matters.
Bowman and Strome’s new agent, Pat Morris, began relatively frequent and intense negotiations a few weeks ago, with both expressing cautious optimism they’d eventually come to terms. It took as long as it possibly could have, but their optimism eventually proved to be well-grounded.
The two-year contract term represents a so-called “bridge deal,” which will keep Strome a restricted free agent when it expires in 2022. The cap should be rising again by then, so Strome will have the potential to cash in with a large deal if his production remains top-six level in the next two seasons.
On the other hand, the $3 million cap hit in the meantime won’t greatly handicap the Hawks, who own plenty of space with Toews on long-term injured reserve but will abruptly revert to a cap-ceiling team when their captain — and his $10.5 million cap hit — returns.
What was a surprisingly populated free-agent market around the NHL when the 2021 season was announced Dec. 20 has dwindled significantly since, but there are still some restricted-free-agent holdouts to monitor on other teams.
Mathew Barzal (Islanders), Jack Roslovic (Jets), Jesper Bratt (Devils) and Luke Kunin (Predators) had 29 or more points last season — Barzal led the Isles with 60 — but remain RFAs without contracts.