Where things stand between Dylan Strome, Blackhawks originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
After a disastrous three-game road trip to open the 2021-22 season, the Blackhawks returned to practice in Chicago on Monday and changed up the look of their four-line rotation. That's no surprise, given the 0-2-1 start.
It was a surprise, however, to see Dylan Strome remain on the outside looking in. It's noteworthy because the Blackhawks recalled forward Mike Hardman from Rockford earlier in the day and immediately slotted him into the third line, which now includes Henrik Borgstrom and Alex DeBrincat.
Head coach Jeremy Colliton was asked after practice whether there's an asset protection element to Strome being held out of the lineup, considering the Blackhawks have only two 5-on-5 goals in nine-plus periods of hockey and could use his offensive upside. The indirect answer was probably telling in itself.
"I think we’re just trying to find the right combination, recipe here," Colliton said. "I’m not as worried about the 5-on-5 scoring as I’m worried about what we’ve given up and the quality going the other way, and the mentality that we’re playing with. To me, that’s what Hardman brings. He’s physical, hard to play against. He just plays an honest, simple game. I think that will help push our team in the proper direction."
Blackhawks President/GM Stan Bowman said before Wednesday's season opener that Strome’s absence from the lineup against Colorado was “more circumstantial” than anything. It was a fair response when you saw how competitive the training camp battles were up front.
But the circumstances have already changed. The Blackhawks are winless through three games and lacking offensive production at even strength.
Now, let's be clear: Nobody is arguing Strome is the answer to Chicago's early-season struggles. The issues go well beyond that. But it doesn't seem like the Blackhawks are eager to give him the same opportunity everybody else is getting.
If Strome had gotten a look at some point during the road trip, this probably wouldn't be a significant storyline. But he was the only one that didn't, and now he's seemingly the 15th forward.
"I’m just staying positive," Strome said on Oct. 1 after the second preseason game when it became apparent to him that he was fighting for a roster spot. "I mean, the last two camps I think I came in and started with [Patrick] Kane and DeBrincat right away. You never know what can happen during the season. A lot happens, it’s a long season. So come in, be positive, be happy around the rink, happy to be here and happy to see the fans."
So how did we get here? How did we go from Strome and the Blackhawks looking to be a great long-term marriage to this?
Let's rewind back to Strome's very first season in Chicago, where he averaged nearly a point per game after scoring a career-high 17 goals, 34 assists and 51 points in 57 games. He also averaged 17:03 of ice time. A great start.
The very next season, Strome picked up where he left off by recording 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 23 games before he wisely removed himself from the lineup and was placed in concussion protocol. He returned roughly two weeks later and didn't skip a beat.
Where things started to go sideways is when Strome suffered a nasty-looking ankle injury on Jan. 7, 2020 against the Calgary Flames that knocked him out for nearly a month. He was playing some of the best hockey of his NHL career to that point.
After he returned, Strome never quite looked the same. He admittedly rush back from the ankle injury and it showed after registering no goals and only three assists in 13 games in the month of February. He was also a healthy scratch twice.
By the time the Blackhawks returned for the bubble, Kirby Dach looked like a different player and had emerged as a legitimate top-six center. Only Patrick Kane averaged more ice time among team forwards in that postseason, which squeezed Strome back to the third line through no fault of his own.
That was probably going to be the case going into the 2020-21 season, until Dach suffered a wrist injury that was supposed to sideline him for more than four months and Jonathan Toews announced he wouldn't be available because of an undisclosed illness. That opened the door for Strome, who remained unsigned until the day before training camp, to seize the No. 1 center role.
Strome didn't exactly run with that opportunity, but part of that might be because he played only 46 even-strength minutes all season with DeBrincat and Kane and 313 minutes without either one of them, according to Natural Stat Trick. Another reason is that he missed 11 games with a concussion. It wasn't an ideal situation.
That leads us to the present moment: Dach and Toews are back and healthy. Borgstrom and Tyler Johnson have been added to the mix. MacKenzie Entwistle was one of the breakout players of camp. That's a lot of centers.
I asked Colliton after Friday’s morning skate in New Jersey what Strome could do to put himself in a position to crack the lineup.
"What he’s doing," Colliton responded. "I thought he had a solid camp. We know what he can bring. It shows our depth that we have a guy like that. He’s hungry to play. Last time I talked to him a couple days ago he says, ‘When I come in I’m not coming out.’"
You have to wonder at this point whether Strome will get the opportunity to show the Blackhawks that, or whether it'll happen with a different team.