Blackhawks’ Dylan Strome trying to stay optimistic despite reduced roleBen Popeon October 2, 2021 at 7:56 pm

Dylan Strome learned to juggle this summer to improve his faceoff skills. | AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Strome learned to juggle this summer in hopes of improving his faceoff abilities, but might need that skill to handle his volatile playing time, too.

Dylan Strome learned how to juggle this summer.

That new skill was intended to improve his faceoff abilities. But he might end up needing it to handle his volatile role on the Blackhawks this year, too.

Strome has been a near-complete afterthought in training camp so far, at best stuck in a fourth-line grinder role that doesn’t fit his offensive mindset and at worst relegated to the AHL-bound ground.

The 24-year-old forward opened camp last week alongside Ryan Carpenter and Jujhar Khaira, and that turned out to be the peak of his placement. His linemates during various practices since have included Brett Connolly, Alex Nylander and Cam Morrison. He’ll skate with Connolly and Adam Gaudette in Saturday’s game against the Blues in Kansas City.

Coach Jeremy Colliton has been coy throughout camp about exactly why Strome has been so neglected.

“We want to have possession in the offensive zone, we want to be a harder team to play against without the puck, so if he can help us there, it’ll help [his] cause to be in the lineup,” Colliton said when pushed Saturday.

Strome certainly feels the difference. After his preseason debut Friday, during which he played 15:05, he mentioned he started his last two camps placed on a line “right away” with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat — an almost comical contrast to his partners this fall.

But he’s optimistic he can eventually force his way out of Colliton’s doghouse.

“I’m just staying positive,” he said. “You never know what can happen during the season. A lot happens; it’s a long season. So [I want to] come in, be positive, be happy around the rink, happy to be here, happy to see the fans.”

The Hawks’ Strome dilemma dates back to the final month of last season, when Strome was a healthy scratch for four of the last 10 games — including a particularly contentious April night in Nashville, when Strome took warmups but was then scratched without warning. Colliton later explained it was because Wyatt Kalynuk was a game-time decision, but Strome admitted it “pissed me off a lot.”

Still, Strome has proven he can be a productive playmaker when surrounded with talent and allowed to play center, his natural position. He’s only two years removed from his 51-points-in-58-games Hawks debut and his scoring rate over the past three seasons — 2.51 points per 60 minutes — ranked fifth on the team, behind only Kane, DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik and Jonathan Toews.

It seemed like his opportunity might come in a different city in 2021-22, with the Hawks aggressively exploring all trade options this offseason and Strome clearly falling out of Colliton’s favor. But while a trade could conceivably still come, he has no choice for now but to try to recapture the magic in Chicago.

“Carrying the puck with speed is one thing I need to do better,” Strome said. “Sometimes I just get it and just throw it away when I know I can make plays. And I should be making plays, so I’m going to continue to work on that. Hopefully it translates to more ‘O’-zone time.”

Faceoffs are another thing. His faceoff winning percentage settled at 47.0% last season and 47.1% for his career. His struggles in that regard have contributed to his role reduction.

As a left-hand shot but a right-hand-dominant person, Strome realized he needed to strengthen and quicken his left hand, which sits lower on his stick during faceoffs and thus has more leverage. The solution was the aforementioned juggling — “literally, three balls and juggling,” he said, doing the motion subconsciously.

“If there’s one thing I can do to help myself play center, be in the opening night lineup, it’s faceoffs,” he added bluntly.

His early results, faceoffs-wise, are encouraging: he won seven of nine draws Friday. But time will tell if that alone will be enough.

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