For Erie Otters’ center Dylan Strome, opportunity keeps knocking — and the 17-year-old keeps answering. And people are taking notice.
Strome’s play has garnered the attention of the NHL brass. Not only is he tied for the lead in OHL scoring with 61 points in 32 games so far, but ISS Hockey listed him as its fifth-ranked prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft in their most recent rankings.
And he’s continuing to do it all while stepping out of the shadows of a much-heralded teammate. Someone by the name of Connor McDavid.
“It’s a little bit of opportunity, but if anyone on our team didn’t think this, then they shouldn’t be on our team — we’re a 100 times better team with him in the lineup. Who knows what our team stats and our individual stats would be like with him in these past games?” Strome said. “That’s just the way it goes. It’s hockey. There are fights and injuries and battles all the time. You hate to see stuff like that happen, but at the same time it does happen and you have to do your best to get past it. I think our team’s done a good job right now.”
Some questioned how greatly Strome’s numbers were impacted by the presence of McDavid and the attention that he attracts. But Strome has continued to produce at a two-points-per-game pace in McDavid’s absence, and Erie keeps winning. Strome does keep a sense of humor about it, though.
“That’s just what a few people say. When our team scores eight or nine goals, he’s not going to get eight or nine points each night. We’d score eight or nine earlier in the year — and he was getting about four or five points a night,” Strome said, laughing. “We were just getting the other four. We wish we had him in the lineup each night. I’m sure he’ll do really great at the World Junior and then come back to us in the New Year.”
While McDavid’s absence has provided one opportunity, the graduation of a significant number of last year’s top forwards has provided another, Strome explained.
“Last year, we had such a stocked team that it was tough for any of the younger guys to flourish,” he said. “Connor Brown, pretty close to two points per game — he’s obviously a pretty special player — and Dane Fox, Brendan Gaunce, it was tough. I think I played a pretty good role last year, but I wasn’t much of a scorer.
“This year, I’m having the opportunity to play a little bit more and put up some numbers. I’m on the first power play, so that obviously helps a lot. I’m playing pretty good minutes and I think the coach likes what I’m doing when I’m out there. I like playing and being out on the ice and I like doing whatever it takes to help my team win.”
And what really appeals to scouts is Strome’s attention to the small details. He’s an elite face-off man and continues to work on his craft. Strome said it’s something he’s been working on for years.
“I just remember me and my dad used to work on face-offs a lot when I was younger. He would take turns with me, Matt, and Ryan — my other brothers,” he said. “Every time we’d play a little mini-stick game or we’d play road hockey, there would always be face-offs included. Just little things like that got me a little bit better through the years. Now, every day, I work with the coach after practice. I just get better and better.
“Kyle Pettit, drafted by Vancouver, is a guy on our team — I’ve never had to play someone so hard to beat them on draws. When we’re starting with the puck all the time, it really helps and it contributes to us winning games.”
There’s no secret to being a good face-off specialist, Strome said. It’s just observation, repetition, and hard work.
“It’s just recognizing when the ref is going to drop the puck. You have to know the ref’s tendencies and watch his hands. You have to know how he’s going to drop the puck, whether he raises it a little higher or just drops it straight away,” he said. “You just have to see little things like that because learning that just helps so much. You just pull the puck back as quick as you can.
“Obviously people have different ways and it all comes down to different personalities and personal ways. Some people try to overpower guys, some people try to do it quick, so you just have to see what the other guy does and do your best.”
The Strome family has deep roots in hockey. The aforementioned Matt and Ryan are 21-year-old Ryan Strome, selected fifth overall at the 2011 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, and 15-year-old Matthew Strome, a winger for the Toronto Marlboros’ Minor Midget AAA squad.
So who’s the best face-off man in the Strome household?
“I don’t know. Matt’s pretty good, I won’t lie, but he plays wing now most of the year, so I don’t know,” he said. “I’d like to see that in the summer.”
Selected where Dylan’s ranked, older brother Ryan has been through this all before as a member of the Niagara IceDogs. Ryan said he’s turned to his older brother for advice, and continues to learn from his example.
“He just says to stay even keel. Don’t get too high on the highs and don’t get too low on the lows. That’s kind of the most important thing that he’s taught me,” he said. “Obviously he’s doing pretty well for himself in New York right now. He’s having a good year and the team’s doing well, so with team success comes individual success and you see that everywhere.
“You don’t see too many players who are rated pretty high, but not on a good team. When everyone’s doing well it just helps improve every single player.”
It’s a lesson that Dylan said he sees reinforced on a regular basis.
“It spoke to itself last year in Edmonton,” he said. “I think the Oil Kings had something like 14 or 15 guys at NHL camps — it speaks to itself when you have a Memorial Cup-winning team helping to get guys to the next level.”
Strome said he was pleased to be ranked so highly leading up to the draft, but ultimately knows whose perception matters most.
“It’s a pretty cool standard when people say that about you, but you obviously try to block it out as much as you can. You don’t want to be too focused on that stuff, but obviously it’s there,” he said. “But that’s just what one person says, or what one group thinks. At the end of the day, it comes down to what team likes you.
“And I think every team in the NHL would agree that they like winners and that’s what we try to do every night and hopefully we can put together a winning season.”
To date, he’s been able to block out the scouts, though he added that he feels that the spotlight shone on himself and McDavid may be obscuring others on his team worthy of attention.
“I don’t even think about the people that are watching the game. A good friend of mine once told me you don’t play for the scouts, you play for your teammates. You play for your best friends on the team and that’s what we do every night,” Strome explained. “Me and Connor definitely get looked at a little too much on this team — I mean, we have eight or nine draft-eligible players this year and they’re doing very well for themselves in their own right.
“We like the challenge of going into a game each night, knowing that there’s going to be added attention on all eight or nine of us. I think we enjoy that — we appreciate it and we look forward to that pressure.”
As the draft approaches, Strome said he’s looking to add new elements to his game. “Getting my first couple of steps bigger,” he said. “I’m pretty good with the puck when I’m down low and making plays, but if I can add the element to my game where I can beat a defenseman wide using my speed and strength, I think that would be pretty big. If I can do that, maybe I can gain a couple more chances per game for my linemates and myself.”
Draft aside, where do Dylan’s loyalties lie — and does his brother’s presence on Long Island have any influence?
“I’d say I watch the Islanders more than anyone else, but I don’t think I’m their biggest fan,” he said. “From Toronto, I grew up being a Leafs’ fan, but I don’t really have — well, I guess I’m a Leafs fan probably.”
The eldest Strome brothers have never played together. “Four years is a little too much,” Dylan said. “We played a bit against each other during the summer in a little summer league that we play in, but never really together.”
But if he got selected by the Islanders, somehow? “That’d be pretty cool. Obviously they have a lot of young talent there and I think they’re going to be a good team in the future,” he said.
Strome’s breakout season continues. But even he wasn’t expecting to lead the league in scoring and average two points a game.
“No… I just wanted to have a good year personally,” he said. “And I think everyone on our team would agree that winning is so much more fun than losing.”
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