After taking the weekend off, it’s time to take our minds off COVID-19 for a little bit and talk about some hockey.
This piece will be the first in series I’ll be doing over the next few weeks looking at a variety of options the Buffalo Sabres could explore to fill the void at center in the offseason. I’ll look at trade options and players that could be available in free agency.
Up first is Chicago Blackhawks center, Dylan Strome. We all know of the 23-year-old forward that was selected third in the infamous 2015 NHL Draft. Strome was the consolation that year after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. After being selected by the Arizona Coyotes, his career never got off the ground. Then, last season he was traded to the Blackhawks and he exploded in Chicago. He scored 17 goals and 51 points in 58 games with the Hawks last season.
He’s not having as strong as a season this year with 12 goals and 38 points in 58 games. However, that’s still a 54 points per 82 game pace for the Canadian-born center.
He plays a similar style game to that of Sam Reinhart, but has more size. Nothing flashy, but has a good hockey IQ that allows him to succeed in the NHL.
He’s been a play-driving center throughout his career with both the Coyotes and Blackhawks. Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model grades Strome out as a strong impact player offensively but has some shortcomings in the defensive area of the game. We’ll get back to the defense in a moment.
According to the twins’ site, Strome has primarily played with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane over the last two seasons in Chicago. Playing with two finishers has been a good match for him. Looking at Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Strome is one of the top players on the team in primary shot assists per 60 minutes. For those unaware, primary shot assists indicate that his passes result in shot attempts directly off of his pass.
The primary shot contributions data tells us that Strome is a playmaker that likely fits best with at least one winger that is a strong finisher. He could be a good center for a player like Victor Olofsson or Jeff Skinner next season. It should be noted that while he’s more on the side of a playmaker, Strome does possess a decent shot. He has a career shooting percentage of 12.9%.
As I mentioned above, his coach should attempt to deploy him in offensive situations and put him with a winger that can help defensively. Reinhart could be a good fit for that or Marcus Johansson when he returns to the wing.
You usually don’t see a team move a young center that has potential. There are a few reasons that the Blackhawks could make Strome available in the offseason. One reason is that 2019 top-five pick Kirby Dach has had a strong rookie season. They could look to get by with Jonathan Toews and Dach moving forward.
Strome is also a restricted free agent in the summer and Blackhawks have some salary cap issues. According to Cap Friendly, if the cap goes up to $84 million for next season the Hawks would have around $10 million in cap space. With the way things are trending now, it seems unlikely the cap would go up that much ($2.5 million) if the NHL loses a handful of games and possibly the entire season.
The Blackhawks traded Nick Schmaltz to the Coyotes for Strome and Brendan Perlini in November of 2018. They’ll likely look to recoup a young cost-controlled player in return for Strome. With the Sabres having an abundance of cap space (as of now) next season, the general manager can get crafty in this type of trade discussion. They could use their cap space as a way to get a favorable deal by taking a short-term contract from the Blackhawks to help alleviate their cap crunch.
Strome is an intriguing target for the Sabres to explore in the offseason. Not only for his connection in the 2015 draft but because of where he is at this point in his career. His age would line up with the core of the roster and could be a key piece moving forward. A potential center spine of Eichel, Strome, and Dylan Cozens would be a drastic improvement for the top nine.