Dylan Strome’s plan to improve on faceoffs has worked to perfection

Strome’s faceoff winning percentage has increased from 47.1% last season to 55.9% this season with the Blackhawks after he spent the summer learning to juggle.

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Dylan Strome, here facing brother Ryan Strome of the Rangers, has improved on draws this season.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Almost every aspect of Dylan Strome’s season has been chaotic.

Between the ever-changing roles in the Blackhawks’ lineup, the fluctuating production, the pesky trade rumors and the recent (asymptomatic) bout with COVID-19 — all with a newborn baby at home — Strome hasn’t been able to take comfort in much.

But he does deserve credit for stabilizing one part of his game: faceoffs.

He entered the season as a below-average faceoff man. His career winning percentage was 47.1%, his best season had topped out at 48.4% and he won 47.0% last season. It had been a constant struggle.

“I feel like I keep being [at] 30%, 40%, and it’s not helping us, so I’ve got to find a way to get that up or switch it up,” he said in November 2019.

He spent this past summer learning how to juggle to improve his hand-eye coordination and reaction speed. As a right-hand-dominant person with a left-handed shot, he particularly needed to improve with his left hand.

The payoff has been dramatic. Strome has won 55.9% of his 236 faceoffs, ranking 19th in the NHL among 179 players with 100 or more faceoffs.

That 8.9 percentage-point improvement over last season is the second-biggest by any Hawks center in 25 years (topped only by Marcus Kruger’s 10.5 percentage-point improvement from 2013 to 2014).

“It’s a lot of timing,” Strome said. “We do a lot after practice every day. Learning from [Jonathan Toews] and seeing how he does it, timing is a big part of it. Whenever you’re in there, you want to start with the puck, and it helps your line create chances and maybe play a little more in the offensive zone.”

His rapid evolution has given the Hawks a much-needed second reliable draw-taker beyond Toews, who ranks seventh in the league at 59.1%.

Kirby Dach’s 33.2% winning percentage over 376 faceoffs weighs the Hawks down significantly in this category, but between Toews, Strome and right-handed Ryan Carpenter, who also has improved greatly this season (from 44.0% the last two seasons to 53.3%), they’ve nearly broken even as a team.

“That’s what we need,” interim coach Derek King said. “We can’t just keep sending Toews out for every draw, and then next thing you know, he’s at 30 minutes because he [keeps] playing. So it’s nice to have that option.”

“[I] try to be a guy your coach can throw out for a big offensive- or defensive-zone faceoff whenever they need it,” Strome said. “Obviously, [Toews] takes a lot of those important ones, but sometimes he’s been out there for a while, and they need another lefty.”

There was a stretch earlier this season during which Strome was still taking only a few faceoffs per game because the Hawks had abandoned using him at center. The argument for moving him to wing used to be that his faceoff efficiency didn’t match his productivity, but then his productivity didn’t match his faceoff efficiency.

Since Dec. 5, though, Strome has been winning draws and producing while playing his best hockey in a while. After scoring late in his return from COVID on Friday, then getting an assist and winning 14 of 20 draws Saturday, he has nine points (three goals, six assists) and a 56.4% faceoff winning percentage in his last 14 games.

“I felt really good before I got COVID,” he said Friday. “My offense was starting to come, and I was getting some good ice time and feeling confident with the puck, making some plays. [I’ve] just got to keep it rolling.”

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