Keeping Dylan Strome would be a smart, low-risk move

The center was useful to the Blackhawks when used correctly and can continue to be so.

The Blackhawks went through a lot of changes last season, but newly minted general manager Kyle Davidson still has many more decisions to make this offseason. One of those decisions is whether the Blackhawks should re-sign the player who appeared most often in trade rumors: Dylan Strome.

With Strome now a restricted free agent, Davidson will need to figure out if the 2015 No. 3 overall pick should be kept or allowed to walk — and reports suggest the young GM is leaning towards the latter.

While it’s understandable that Davidson might want a clean slate when it comes to some of the pending free agents with the Blackhawks, it’s arguably a better idea to keep Strome for a variety of reasons.

Strome’s next contract is likely a big reason Davidson is interested in letting Strome go, but that shouldn’t be the case.

Strome’s qualifying offer has to be least $3.6 million, a number that seems too high for his inconsistent play over the last two seasons. However, the Blackhawks could lower the cap hit by giving him two years instead of one and get his cap hit to around $3.2 million. This works well for both the team and the player: the Blackhawks get a lower AAV with a more tradable contract and Strome would be an unrestricted free agent at the end of it — just in time for a potential payday (if he performs).

The issue with this plan is that Strome is arbitration eligible, and Davidson might not want to deal with that hassle for a player he doesn’t see as part of the team’s long-term plans. That’s valid but short-sighted, especially since the Blackhawks can walk away if the amount is more than around $4.5 million. Anything below that amount is doable for the Blackhawks for the next two seasons, so it’s not a big risk.

However, Strome’s performance in the latter half of the season is why the Blackhawks should invest some more time in him as a player.

Much like Patrick Kane, Dylan Strome had a very divided season. Unlike Kane, though, Strome’s duality can be traced more easily to usage. After being healthy scratched and then mismanaged by both AHL coaches the Blackhawks employed at the NHL level this season, Strome was finally placed with whom he has always played well: Kane and Alex DeBrincat.

  • First 41 team games: Strome had a 0.43 points-per-game rate while playing in just 28 games.
  • Second 41 team games: Strome had a 0.88 points-per-game rate with playing in all 41 games. /

Obviously, most players will be better with star quality players, but the reverse is true in this case as well (which we’ll get into more below) — Kane and DeBrincat were better with Strome, too.

Despite Strome’s lower production rate in the first half of the season, he still directly contributed to a whopping 85.71 percent of goals when he was on the ice. Among the Blackhawks who skated at least 500 minutes last season, Strome is the only player on the team that consistently topped Kane in this category.

But the second half is where Strome really took off offensively. He was still behind DeBrincat and Kane in points per 60 (2.71) but moved up to tie Hagel for third. His goals contribution percentage went down to 70.37, but that’s still very strong.

And because the Blackhawks, in general, were so offensively inept this season, Strome ended up still near the top of the team in points per 60 (among Blackhawks forwards who played at least 300 minutes): he was top-four at 5-on-5 with 1.78 – trailing Kane, DeBrincat, and Brandon Hagel — and top-three overall with 2.39 — edging out Hagel here.

Now, Strome’s production — especially his goals — was inflated by a shooting percentage of just over 21 in the back half of the season, but he was still one of the best in terms of assists (1.35 per 60, third best). So if Strome shot at closer to his previous career average (12.5 percent) consistently with his same shot rate, Strome would have still had roughly 20 goals and 50 points in a full 82 game season.

Strome’s expected Goals Above Replacement (GAR) was also much higher than his actual GAR, suggesting that Strome may have been even better than his final results. This makes sense if the misuse of Strome in the first half of the season had as big of an impact on his final production and performance as believed.

In the end, Strome had a second-line quality season despite spending only half a season playing with top-six players.

Did Strome only produce because he played with Kane and DeBrincat?

The short answer is mostly, but that has as much to do with the lower quality linemates he had before skating with DeBrincat and Kane. The lack of quality depth on the Blackhawks meant it was difficult to get production out of Strome, but this was true of every player not named DeBrincat and Kane. Plus, while Strome has always had the best chemistry with DeBrincat and Kane, he has produced with other top-six players in the past – just not to the degree he does with the Blackhawks’ current dynamic duo. Importantly, Strome does boost those guys are well:

Strome WOWY

With / WithoutTOICF%SF%GF%xGF%
Strome with DeBrincat566:0450.1450.8357.1452.53
DeBrincat without Strome690:3447.6248.9442.1946.44
Strome with Kane639:1849.9152.0455.7150.62
Kane without Strome658:4248.8447.7741.9443.14
Strome with Both432:0750.6051.4356.8651.87
Both without Strome725:0349.7150.4452.4348.44

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship between Strome, DeBrincat, and Kane in any combination but especially when they’re all together. The biggest complaint about the trio is that they’re lacking defensively — which is true — but they’ve almost always outscored their defensive issues and this season was no different, despite the line facing the highest quality of competition ever.

Beyond his point production, Strome does a lot of the little things well that the Blackhawks need more players to do, as seen in his microstats:

Two of the areas above where Strome ranks the highest involve his playmaking ability, a statistical area where he usually only trails Kane. Strome’s setup (72.8) and high-danger pass (72.9) percentiles were lower than his career bests, but again, he was working with lower quality of linemates for almost 30 games. Yet he still finished with the third most primary shot assists (9.71) and high-danger shot assists per 60 (1.66) on the team.

Strome also tends to shoot from high-danger areas, and he’s nearly in the top 60 percent of the league in scoring chances overall. The issue here is that Strome doesn’t shoot enough. Part of why his shooting percentage was so high in the second half was due to the combination of low shot volume combined with strong shot quality. Strome was especially good at deflections, a rare commodity for the Blackhawks over recent years: the last Blackhawks player to be in the 70th percentile for the league with an above average attempt rate like Strome was ‘13-14 Andrew Shaw. Strome ended up with the fifth highest expected goals per 60 rate (0.61) thanks to taking more shots from high danger locations per 60 (3.8) on the team.

Transition play is also a strength for Strome, though more because of his passing than his skating. He was top five among Blackhawks forwards in controlled zone entries percentage (68.5 percent) but was bottom-10 in attempted zone entries rate (14.68 per 60). The same is true for Strome’s exit numbers: very good at getting out of the defensive zone when he tries, but he needs to do it more – especially considering the Blackhawks’ issues on exiting the defensive zone in general. Strome both attempts more and is more successful at passing out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone, which isn’t surprising considering his hands have always been better than his feet.

These are all good attributes to have, but Strome definitely has flaws to his game. Obviously, foot speed is always going to be an issue with Strome: he’s fine once he gets going but his first step is slow and he doesn’t have the acceleration to separate from other players. This impacts things like recovering puck dump-ins: a stat where Strome was in the bottom 10 among Blackhawks with a rate of 2.48 per 60. Interestingly, Strome’s puck recovery numbers were better (right around league average) when he was in the bottom-six, but not as good as other players who are better suited for that role (Sam Lafferty, for example).

And while Strome is an excellent playmaker, his general passing numbers — the passes that occur away from the net and don’t lead to shot attempts — were in just the 20th percentile for the league. Some of this is due to the lack of offensive zone time and puck possession the Blackhawks had this season, but Strome could have done more, considering passing is his greatest strength. So while it’s great that Strome can setup scoring chances strongly, he needs to find a way to apply that to regular in-zone passing that can help with cycling the puck and getting a goalie moving.

None of these issues with Strome as a player detracts from the fact that when used correctly, he added value to the Blackhawks as a team this season.

In addition to Strome being a useful – if flawed – player for the Blackhawks, he should be kept for two other reasons: lack of center depth and asset management.

While it was great to see Jonathan Toews return to the ice after missing all of last season, there was definitely a decline in positive results and it’s unknown if he’ll be with the Blackhawks next season. The heir-apparent top-line center — Kirby Dach — also struggled to see results. While it’s too early to call Dach a bust, it’s still a question mark on whether he’ll reach his potential. Top prospect Lukas Reichel is likely to be an NHL regular next season and has top-line potential, but he’s also just 20 and it’s not known if he’s a legit center in the NHL. Reichel is likely closer to the timelines of Teuvo Teräväinen and Nick Schmaltz, in terms of reaching his full value.

So, yes, ideally Strome wouldn’t be a top-line pivot, but he did work there well enough this past season that he can act as a placeholder to allow Reichel and Dach more time against lower quality competition as they acclimate to the NHL. At worst, Strome has and can put up second-line center numbers with top-six quality players.

In addition to center depth issues, it’d be bad asset management to let Strome walk for nothing. Even if Strome isn’t in the long-term plans for the Blackhawks, Davidson should keep Strome just to see if his trade value can be driven up a bit before moving on from the player. Since the salary cap really isn’t a concern for the Blackhawks over the next two seasons and they could sign Strome to a tradable contract this summer, there’s low to no risk for the Blackhawks to sign and play him.

Ultimately, it would be smart for Davidson to keep Strome for a bit longer as he’d be useful in the near future and his trade value could go up enough to recoup something of worth for him.