Last year, all eyes were on the Erie Otters as the combination of Dylan Strome and Connor McDavid were charging up the OHL standings and the NHL Draft boards. This year, with McDavid in Edmonton and Strome having been drafted by the Arizona Coyotes third overall, it’s a different dynamic – and instead of leading the charge up the draft boards, or leading the scoring race, Strome is putting the pressure on himself to be a leader on his team.
“It’s a little different. Obviously you’re not going into every game thinking that there are 30 teams watching you – there’s only one team watching you now. But there’s still a lot of eyes on you. Obviously there’s a lot to play for at the beginning of the year with the World Juniors; obviously you want to be selected for that,” Strome explained. “And now it’s about your teammates – your brothers that you play with every day – it’s about helping them out and getting them drafted. The older guys helped me out a ton last year and were always there to support me, so I’m trying to do that for the guys this year.
“We have four, five – maybe six guys that could potentially be drafted, so I’m just trying to show them the ropes a bit and help them out.”
There is still the pressure to perform, however. This time, Strome explained, it’s not for a job audition, but rather because he’s bearing the expectations of a veteran.
“I think it’s just different. It’s definitely not more stressful, but I think there are games where you have a different feeling because you are that third-year kind of guy and you’re expected to take over some games,” he said. “There are definitely games where you have a stress factor in that kind of way, but it’s definitely not more nerve-wracking. It’s just about playing hockey and trying to help out those guys looking to get drafted this year.”
Strome led the OHL in scoring last year with 45 goals 129 points in 68 games. In his third year, Strome is exceeding last year’s pace with 73 points in 35 games, including 25 goals, and is a large part of why Erie has set up permanent residence atop the CHL rankings.
He said he is focused on leadership this season and was honored when the team put the “C” on his chest once he returned from Arizona’s NHL camp.
“I think I [am taking on more leadership] for sure. Getting that captaincy right when I came back was very humbling and it made me feel more comfortable with the guys,” Strome said. “They’ll talk to me when they need something, which they did a little bit last year, but I was still one of the younger guys – I was still finding my way in the league. Now I know a lot more and have been through a lot – I’ve been to the conference finals, a lot of guys on this team weren’t there last year, so I’m trying to help them as much as possible.
“And obviously it’s very intimidating coming into a rink like [London], but it’s been a long way through the season so far and the guys are a little more relaxed, but when you have 10,000 people screaming in the London Knights’ home arena it’s pretty humbling and it’s pretty nerve-wracking. I’m going to try to settle them down.”
Otters’ head coach Kris Knoblauch said that Strome has adapted well to his new role in Erie – and to the level of opposition attention he has been getting.
“He’s doing a lot of things that he did last year that won him the scoring race. But obviously we’re relying on him a lot more in the middle position with the graduation of Connor [McDavid],” Knoblauch explained. “It’s a little bit easier when you’re the second guy and you don’t get the matchups against the top defenders each night, whereas this year he has. You have to play a little more physical, teams are going to be a little more hard on him, and I feel that he’s responded nicely.”
Strome said the experience he had at the NHL camp was invaluable and he is committed to sharing those lessons with his teammates.
“I was there for a while; I was there for about a month, I think. I was the last cut; I was pretty close to making the start opening day,” he said. “You can learn a lot when you’re right down to the wire. So I wanted to help the guys out when I came back here.
“I was getting a lot of help from Max [Domi] who was helping me out a lot and [Anthony] Duclair. Those two guys were definitely huge for me. I am just trying to help out the guys when I got back for them to know what [the NHL teams] expect.”
Knoblauch explained that he has seen the benefit a long stint at an NHL camp has had for his captain.
“You learn from the environment you’re around. Whether that’s through summer training, the team that you’ve been with for a couple of years, or the NHL camps you’ve been at,” he said. “You see what your teammates are doing. In this circumstance it’s an Arizona NHL team that he’s watching and learning from. When he came back it was a little more dedication to his preparation and maybe speeding up his game a bit.”
Strome said that Arizona expects him to work on refining aspects of his game, but that it doesn’t mean a substantial change to the player that he is.
“Obviously they want you to play a certain way and they know what you can do. They want you to work on the little things so that you can actually play at the level where they want you to play in,” he said. “It’s a tough league to crack for any 18 year old, 19 year old, 20 year old – even 21. It doesn’t happen very often and they want you to work on different things to get ready for that next level.”
And Strome said he is placing a particular focus on improving his abilities in his own zone.
“I’ve got to be a bit more aware defensively. I love scoring goals, I love getting points and stuff, but at the next level it’s harder to score, so the little parts of the game become so much more glorified than what they are here,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the puck out of my net as much as I’m scoring on the other end.”
The defensive side of his game is an area for which Knoblauch feels Strome doesn’t get enough appreciation.
“Absolutely. I think he’s a better defensive player than a lot of people give him credit for,” Knoblauch said. “He’s not a physical guy and he’s not pushing guys off the puck, but he’s very good with his stick stealing the puck, and just good position in the middle of the ice so that he doesn’t get beat.
“I think every player can improve on the defensive side of his game, but it’s not something that I ever felt was a weakness for him.”
And while defense can always be improved, Knoblauch said that Strome has to work on improving the same attributes that most players need to improve to go to the next level.
“I think, as with most players, it’s improving their speed,” he said. “Dylan has all the intangibles with the puck: the patience, the vision, the ability to make incredible passes, but as he gets older he’ll get stronger and faster, and that’s just something he’s going to have to work on for a while.”
Strome is part of a budding hockey family dynasty. Older brother Ryan is a former first-round pick of the New York Islanders (fifth overall in 2011) who has bounced between the parent club and its AHL affiliate in Bridgeport Sound; and younger brother Matthew is a rookie with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Despite the miles between them, Dylan said the family makes a point of keeping in touch.
“We talk a lot. Every day. We have a family group chat and we’re always helping each other out,” he explained. “Ryan, obviously, had a little bit of a tough schedule there at the beginning of the year, getting sent down. But he’s kind of recouped and is finding his way back through this year. Obviously, it’s tough being a 16-year-old like Matt, but he loves it – he loves Hamilton, he’s having fun, his billets are great, and his team is starting to get some wins and are closing in on a playoff spot.
“We’re all doing pretty well in our own right, and hopefully we can keep it up.”
He has yet to play against his brothers (Erie’s games against Hamilton fell on Jan. 2nd and 3rd, while Dylan was at the U20 World Junior Championship). He has played against a close family friend (Michael McLeod of the Mississauga Steelheads) and expects that once the buzzer sounds, the focus will be where it should.
“I never played against Matt or Ryan. I’ve played against Mikey a bit [Michael McLeod]. We play against them four times a year,” he said. “It’s different playing against a Mikey or Ryan for sure – I mean, we played road hockey against each other so many times.
“It’s a different experience being in an OHL game – we both have fun and joke around – but when it comes down to it, you want to win and we’re both very competitive guys.”
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