Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2021. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.
Strome falls into the No. 3 spot almost by default thanks to Adam Boqvist’s departure and with both Philipp Kurashev and Lukas Reichel still firmly in the unproven camp. Yes, there are warranted concerns about his past season, but the fact also remains that Strome is one of the highest skilled players with NHL experience under the age of 25 within the Blackhawks organization. He’s an all-offense middle-six player with a good shot and excellent playmaking ability. And even though the points didn’t materialize in 2020-21, the underlying numbers suggest that Strome could recapture his offensive success from his first two seasons with the Blackhawks.
Strome has been with the Blackhawks for three seasons now, and it’s somewhat of a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation when you compare the offensive results of the first two years (impressive) with the third (disappointing). After being acquired in 2018, he started out with back-to-back seasons that projected over 50 points in an 82-game season, during which he outproduced his on-ice expected goals percentage by a decent margin. The interesting thing is that, while year three was obviously a downer in terms of results and cast appropriate doubts on Strome’s year-to-year consistency, there are still trends in his performance last year that give some hope.
Despite the worrying lack of production in 2020-21 — just 0.43 points per game — Strome still had the third best game score on the Blackhawks according to stats guru Corey Sznajder:
Game Score is similar to the basketball stat by the same name which aims to “give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game,” with a similar scale to points scored. Strome being near the top for the Blackhawks even though his production results were measly hints that there was still a lot of right happening in Strome’s performance.
He also was one of the best playmakers on the team, actually leading in high danger passes per 60:
Strome’s transition numbers were also still decently strong, especially when passing the puck out of the defensive zone: he was top 10 in the league according to InStat Hockey:
Which forwards exited the defensive zone with possession of the puck most often? pic.twitter.com/KEBaOZLcSL— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) September 8, 2021
Mismanagement may have also played a role in Strome’s issues, but it’s definitely not fair to blame it all on that. However, if the Blackhawks keep Strome, they will need to find the right situation if they except him to have a chance at recovering from the slump that was last season. The question then becomes: what is the right situation for Strome and can/should the Blackhawks accommodate him?
Obviously, Strome’s chemistry with both Alex Debrincat and Patrick Kane is undeniable. Looking at Strome’s first two seasons with the Blackhawks, Debrincat (1.14 goals per 60 with) and Kane (1.49 goals per 60 with) scored more while on the ice with Strome. He didn’t just ride their coattails, either, as Strome directly factored into roughly 76 percent of the goals when with Kane-DeBrincat over the last three seasons and that number goes up to 82 percent when the 2021 season is excluded. Also, despite defensive issues, Strome has always outscored his woes to the tune of a 54-55 percent share of the goals scored when on the ice with either or both those guys.
Alex DeBrincat ➡️ Dylan Strome ➡️ Patrick Kane— ✶ ✶Tony G✶ ✶ (@Certified_TonyG) November 14, 2019
Beautiful, unselfish play by the #Blackhawks 2nd line. How about that cross-ice pass on the move by Strome?! #CHIvsVGK #HockeyTwitter #NHL pic.twitter.com/T2GZOUG4BO
It’s not just those two that Strome has seemingly worked well with, either. Although they didn’t score as much, putting Strome on a line with Kurashev and Dominik Kubalik resulted in one of the highest expected goals shares (56.06%) on the team at 5-on-5 last season before they were broken up. Kubalik skill set as a shot volume shooter with an excellent one-timer would have likely benefitted from Strome’s above average passing given more time. Even when shifted to wing, Strome performed better with a strong center like Kirby Dach (57.14 goals for percentage in 180 minutes during the 2019-20 season). Take Strome away from any of the players mentioned above, though, and Strome’s underlying numbers and results sink pretty quick.
All of this seems to be evidence that Strome is at his best when combined with top-quality players who can keep up with his arguably elite playmaking and good transition game, so Strome still brings value to the Chicago lineup. However, considering the Blackhawks don’t have a plethora of other proven high skill-players, that also limits where Strome can be plugged into the line-up.
For more insight on Strome’s ‘20-21 season and things he can do to rebound, check out Mil’s end-of-season article from May.
Strome’s fate with the Blackhawks remains unknown at this point. There was talk about him being traded last off-season before his last-minute re-signing right before training camp, and those rumors returned when the season concluded as he seemingly fell out of favor with the coaching staff. But as we inch closer to the 2021-22 season, Strome is still with the Blackhawks and under contract for one more season.
Whether Strome is with the Blackhawks to start the season or not is likely dependent on how the center situation in Chicago shakes out. There are plenty of options down the middle in the top-nine — Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, Tyler Johnson, Henrik Borgström, and Kurashev— but there’s a degree of uncertainty with all of those players. Strome can act like a buffer if those options can’t form a 1-2-3 punch properly. Oh the other hand, Strome was shifted to wing some of last season, so the Blackhawks coaches may not see him as a viable center option. He was less effective at wing, but that might be corrected given enough time, and playmakers of Strome’s caliber are lacking in the Blackhawks organization. On top of that, Strome’s value is at its absolute lowest point, so any potential return would not be much so waiting to see if he can rebound in the upcoming season could be a better option (at least before any trade).
Despite the evidence above about potential still being there, there’s also no guarantees Strome will return to his previous levels of production. That’s why it wouldn’t be surprising if Strome was either traded or in the lineup opening night at the United Center — each scenario seems as likely at the other at this point.