The Blackhawks spent much time trying to convert Dylan Strome from a center to a wing during the 2019-20 season.
That effort, quite simply, failed.
“I think [Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton] knows I feel that I’m more comfortable at center,” Strome said this week, reflecting on his season. “My play showed that. It’s just different on wing; I’m not used to it. I feel like I can move the puck better at center, and have the puck more on my stick, and create some more plays.”
Strome spent 40 games at his natural center position and 18 games on the wing during the regular season.
During five-on-five play in those 40 games at center, he tallied six goals and 17 assists, good for 23 points. That’s an average of 2.63 points per 60 minutes, nearly matching his 2.73 points-per-60 rate during his breakout 2018-19 season in Chicago.
The Hawks also out-scored opponents 28-15 and mustered a 47.4% scoring chance ratio during Strome’s minutes at center.
On the wing, though, Strome’s results were far worse. He recorded only two goals and three assists during five-on-five play in those 18 games — a rate of 1.46 points per 60 minutes — and three of those five points came in a single night (Oct. 27 vs. the Kings).
The Hawks were out-scored 12-8 and recorded a 46.6% scoring chance ratio during Strome’s ice time in those games.
Colliton even tried rotating the centers with whom Strome played — first Ryan Carpenter, then Kirby Dach, then David Kampf, then back to Dach — without improvement. After Colliton healthy-scratched Strome against the Oilers on Feb. 11, the two had a serious talk.
“I talked to Jeremy after I got scratched in Edmonton, and we both felt that was the best place for me to be was center,” Strome said. “But things happen in the season, and sometimes you have to adjust, and that’s part of being a pro. Guys move from wing to center, center to wing, all the time. First line, second line, third line, fourth line, whatever it may be.”
In addition to essentially wasting 18 games of one of their better forwards this year, the Hawks’ failed “wing Strome” experiment also complicates their offensive depth chart moving forward.
With Jonathan Toews still elite and Dach developing remarkably fast, Strome would likely be the Hawks’ No. 3 center next season.
A player of Strome’s caliber should ideally play more than that, and he’d have the opportunity to do so if he could slot in next to Toews or Dach on the first or second line, but apparently he cannot.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: Strome’s entry-level contract has expired, making him a restricted free agent this offseason.
The Hawks only have to tender him a qualifying offer by Oct. 7 to retain his rights, and Strome isn’t eligible to file for arbitration either. But the contract negotiations nonetheless won’t be simple.
With the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman will struggle to re-sign all of Strome, Corey Crawford, Dominik Kubalik, Drake Caggiula and Slater Koekkoek. Can he afford to pay the several million dollars Strome’s production warrants just for him to be a third-line center?
“It’s not ideal,” Strome said. “The cap has pretty much gone up every year, excluding maybe the lockout I believe. Obviously it’s not ideal, but you’ve just got to go with what you’re dealt. There’s nothing I can do that about that.”
Strome’s agent is Mark Guy, who is going to have a busy autumn — Guy also represents Alex Pietrangelo, one of the year’s highest-profile unrestricted free agents, among many others.
Guy said Friday his discussions so far with Bowman have only determined timing, and the two will begin actual negotiations later in the offseason.
But Strome made it clear that his preference is to stay with the Hawks.
“It’s a dream place to play,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve had success in Chicago and I do like it there. We’ll see what happens.”
In the meantime, Strome will spend most of his offseason in his suburban Toronto hometown, with a month or so working out in Chicago with Hawks trainer Paul Goodman in the middle.
Injuries also contributed to the up-and-down nature of Strome’s 2019-20 campaign — he admitted he “should’ve taken a little more time and waited a little bit” before rushing back from his January ankle injury — and he’ll hope to avoid a repeat of that curse in 2020-21.
But first, he and the Hawks will need to come to a conclusive agreement about his role — and salary — on the team.
And the current uncertainty about both those things makes this offseason a crucial moment in Strome’s still-young Hawks tenure.