Ex-Blackhawks center Dylan Strome receiving the playing time with Capitals that his production warrants
Strome, who returned to the United Center as a Hawks opponent for the first time Tuesday, has recently operated as Alex Ovechkin’s center during Ovechkin’s pursuit of 800 career goals.
After fighting for years to earn the role, Dylan Strome finally got to look over his right shoulder and see Patrick Kane on his wing during the second half of last season with the Blackhawks.
Now on a one-year contract with the Capitals, Strome looks over his left shoulder and sees Alex Ovechkin on that wing.
Strome, who turns 26 in March, might not end up making the Hockey Hall of Fame himself — but he has proven his ability to complement superstars destined for that honor.
“You just try to make the play that’s open,” he said Tuesday. “‘Ovi’ has a great shot, so when he’s open, you try to hit him as best you can. When you’re playing with someone like Kane, you’ve got to be ready for the puck, because he’s going to find you. Those are two unbelievable guys to play with.”
Strome, who returned to the United Center on Tuesday for the first time since the Hawks let him walk as a free agent last summer, has indeed fit right in with his new team. He looked just as comfortable, if not more, donning Capitals gear in the visitors’ locker room as he did the past four years down the hallway.
Meanwhile, Ovechkin called Strome a “smart player.” Well-traveled coach Peter Laviolette, now overseeing the Capitals, raved about Strome’s “terrific start.” In the Capitals’ line rushes, there was Strome in his usual spot as the first-line center between Ovechkin and Conor Sheary.
And when asked about Ovechkin’s pursuit of history — the Russian sniper’s hat trick Tuesday against the Hawks pulled him within one goal of Gordie Howe for second all-time with 801 career goals — Strome’s wording was telling when he asked in response, “What are we, 97 away from [Wayne] Gretzky right now?”
It might be painful from a Hawks perspective, but considering how little appreciation and reward Strome has received during most of his career for how steadily he has produced, it’s gratifying to see those weights finally balancing out for him — even if it’s not in Chicago. Strome said he hopes the Capitals turn out to be his long-term home.
“The guys here are really nice, they’ve treated me really well, and [I’ve] been playing on the power play and playing some good minutes,” he said. “When you’re playing with really talented players, it’s a lot of fun. They’re a great group of guys — very veteran-oriented. [I’m] just trying to help the best I can.”
He has 23 points (six goals and 17 assists) in 31 games, having tallied at least one point in nine of his last 14. On Tuesday, Strome picked up an assist on Trevor van Riemsdyk’s second-period goal. Strome tied with Evgeni Kuznetsov for second on the Capitals in scoring — having essentially taken the place of longtime franchise cornerstone Nicklas Backstrom, who’s out long-term recovering from hip surgery.
The Hawks, meanwhile, sure could use someone with Strome’s offensive instincts and vision — not general manager Kyle Davidson expected anything else when relinquishing him and Dominik Kubalik, who has also thrived in a fresh situation with the Red Wings. Worsening the roster was basically the idea. Strome’s 22 points surpass every active Hawk, even Kane.
Strome does miss the restaurants in Chicago, as well as Kane and Alex DeBrincat, longtime friends with whom he still talks a “decent amount.”
But living in the Washington area, he has a backyard in which his new golden retriever, Benny, can run around. The Capitals have one of the oldest rosters in the NHL, meaning many of his teammates also have young children with whom Strome’s 1-year-old daughter, Weslie, can play. And for Strome, there’s stability in his on-ice role to finally enjoy.
“I’m happy in Washington,” he said. “It has been good.”