There’s no nice way of putting this: the Blackhawks 2021 campaign was like witnessing a car crash. It was ugly. And no matter how hard you try, you can't un-see it.
The season got off on the wrong foot before training camp opened. Whatever optimism Hawks fans had mustered up was stripped away when it was revealed that Jonathan Toews would be sidelined indefinitely with an undisclosed illness. As if the captain’s absence wasn't enough of a blow to the Hawks center depth, Kirby Dach’s wrist injury limited him to only 18 games.
The presumed No. 1 center heading into 2021? Dylan Strome.
Life happens. Between a stint in concussion protocol, the birth of his first child and late season healthy scratches, Strome’s season was consistently inconsistent. The 24-year-old former No. 3 overall pick managed only 17 points (there's some fearful symmetry for you) in 40 games during the ‘21 season. That’s not a very good stat line, especially for a guy who’s supposed to be a top-six caliber center.
So, what the hell happened?
Let’s make one thing clear: Dylan Strome is not Jonathan Toews. Nor should it be asked of him to be Toews.
But this was one part of the problem.
The center group that made up the 2021 Blackhawks was asked to pick up a lot of slack yet failed to do so. It’s not that they completely lacked talent down the middle, but what they did have was used in ... strange ways.
Strome was no exception.
Because Chicago was often one-and-done in the offensive zone and had little regard for creating strategic matchups, the Blackhawks constantly had the ice tilted against them, making players like Strome spend more time in his own zone than is preferred. There were plenty of moments when the Blackhawks took off on a rush, managed one shot on goal and then the puck was quickly heading back the other way with Strome trailing the play from the slot.
The Blackhawks inability to set up camp and cycle in the offensive zone stifled Strome’s numbers so much that, for a player getting 71.04 percent of his starts in the offensive zone at all strengths, he tallied only 9 goals and 8 assists.
The coaching staff and system are not necessary to blame for the offensive woes in which the beloved suffered all season, but it is something that needs to be fixed going forward. A player like Strome needs to be playing in the slot and around the net to find success. He has good stick work and a big body, and has shown in previous seasons that he can be a weapon when used properly.
Kane and Strome with the defense and then the offense on the Blackhawks' second goal pic.twitter.com/GTGI956Gze— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) July 29, 2020
After coming over in a trade from Arizona in November 2018, Strome racked up 51 points in 58 games. Of his 20 goals scored that season, 17 of them came from the low slot. Strome was burying the puck from high-danger areas, primarily right in front of the crease. His ability to weave through the slot and create space allowed for the Hawks to draw defenseman out of position, creating passing lanes. But the Hawks have gotten away from this style of play.
The odd thing is, most of Strome’s numbers have stayed consistent over his last three seasons (save for his PDO, which for the first time as member of the Blackhawks has dropped under 100). His shares of both shot attempts (CF%) and expected goals (xGF%) have both been relatively consistent in relation to his games played. However, his shooting percentage has been on a slight decline, which suggests that it is possible that the declining quality of shots taken by the Hawks is a huge problem, rather than the number of shots for or against.
18-19: 54.55 CF%, 54.17 xGF%, 16.22 S%
19-20: 54.34%, 43.33%, 11.43%
‘21: 53.64%, 33.07%, 9.8%
Another issue which plagued multiple Blackhawks in 2021 was a lack of consistent linemates. Strome was regularly shuffled around, playing center and later on the wing with a multitude of linemates. Ideally Strome — who can shoot right off of the pass — is either paired with a playmaker like Patrick Kane or partnered with someone who can find the back of the net, like his former Erie Otters linemate Alex DeBrincat, as Strome himself is a capable playmaker.
What should the Blackhawks do with Dylan Strome?
While there could be some trade talk about Strome in the upcoming offseason, Strome’s value in a trade is the lowest it’s ever been. While there are plenty of teams with front offices that have made less than ideal trades, it’s unlikely that the Blackhawks would get much of a return for Strome. Especially after a season in which he went into concussion protocol.
Still, No. 17 in red features a useful skill set that could be a weapon on the right team. It’s fair to say that hasn’t yet lived up to his hype as a former third overall pick, but that doesn’t mean he can't be serviceable.
I would love to see Strome have a big bounce back season in ‘21-22. With fans in the building and the potential for a full 82-game schedule, I think he has an opportunity to do so. But if the Hawks (by choice or by chance) continue to play the way they did in 2021, it’s easy to assume Strome could see the same struggles again. Not being put in a position to succeed based on play style and matchups is tough to overcome for most players, and Strome is no exception.
If the Blackhawks elect to part ways with Strome, he could fit in nicely on a number of team’s middle-six groups. While I grew up a huge Joe Sakic fan, I would really hate for him to rip the Hawks off again. It certainly feels like the Blackhawks are probably close to parting ways with Strome and some sort of break-up is looming.
Be it sooner or later, I’m not certain he will be a member of the Blackhawks by the time 2022 rolls around. Strome carries a $3 million salary-cap hit which runs through the 2021-22 NHL season.
Just like the white-winged dove ...