Dylan Strome

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Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Dylan Strome making most of fresh start with Blackhawks

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the 2019 Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET from Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the Arizona Coyotes made Dylan Strome the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft, right after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel went first and second respectively, they were hoping he was going to be a cornerstone player for their rebuild. Even though everyone knew he wasn’t going to be on the same level as the two eventual superstars that went ahead of him he was still an outstanding talent with top-line potential.

For whatever reason, though, it just never panned out for him with the Coyotes.

Arizona tried to bring him along slowly so that he could be a full 200-foot player when he arrived in the NHL, but despite his continued dominance offensively in the Ontario Hockey League and American Hockey League it never really translated to anything with the Coyotes.

Earlier this season, the team decided to move on and sent him to the Chicago Blackhawks for a trade package that was centered around Nick Schmaltz.

It was a great gamble for the Blackhawks.

The salary cap, some questionable roster moves and few impact players coming through the farm system had decimated their depth in recent years and put them in a spot where it was going to be difficult to find potential impact talent. As I argued at the time, a player like Strome was a perfect player for a team like the Blackhawks to take a chance on. He has natural high-end talent, he has excelled at every level prior to the NHL, and has the pedigree of a top-three pick from just a couple of years ago. If he doesn’t pan out, the price wasn’t all that much to pay, especially when they got a comparable player to Schmaltz (Brendan Perlini) in the deal.

If he does pan out, it is going to be a steal.

Even though it has only been a few weeks, the early returns on the deal from a Chicago perspective show Strome seems to be making the most of his fresh start.

Entering Tuesday’s Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins, Strome has already recorded 13 points in his first 17 games with the Blackhawks. That is a 60-point pace over 82 games, and with seven points in his past three games he is one of the big reasons the Blackhawks are playing some of their best hockey of the season with wins in five of their past six games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 1 P.M. ET ON NEW YEAR’S DAY – NBC]

What helps for the Blackhawks is that he is, at least in theory, exactly the type of player they need. Not only because he is still only 21 years old and flashing some of the potential that made him a top-three pick, but because he is still signed for next season on his entry-level contract that will only count $867,000 against the salary cap.

He’s obviously still an unfinished product, and a part of his early point production with the Blackhawks is the result of a 17 percent shooting percentage that will almost certainly regress. He is also getting an opportunity to play alongside one of the league’s best offensive players in Patrick Kane (who has been especially hot in recent games with 12 points during this recent surge by the Blackhawks), but even with all of that the early returns for the Blackhawks have to be encouraging.

If they are going to find a way to re-open their championship window in the Jonathan Toews-Kane era they are going to need to find some young blood that can make a big impact.

Perhaps they have found one in Strome?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Trade: Coyotes send Strome, Perlini to Blackhawks for Schmaltz

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The Arizona Coyotes have officially moved on from the Dylan Strome experience.

A little over three years after making him the third overall pick in the 2015 draft (right behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel), the Coyotes traded the 21-year-old Strome to the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night.

The Coyotes also sent forward Brendan Perlini to Chicago as part of the trade.

In exchange for those two Arizona will receive forward Nick Schmaltz.

First, here is Coyotes general manager John Chayka on what he sees in Schmaltz and where he might fit.

“Nick is a dynamic forward with top line potential. We feel he can be a core player of our team now and into the future. He’s a good complement to our evolving forward group and a rare combination of speed, skill and creativity.”

There is a lot to unwrap here, but let’s start with Chicago’s acquisition of Strome because — and with all due respect to Schmaltz and Perlini — he is going to be the player that makes or breaks this trade. For both teams.

It is a total boom-or-bust move for the Blackhawks because even with his struggles in Arizona he is still a player that is loaded with potential. He has excelled at every level he has played at (including the American Hockey League where he had 53 points in 50 games a season ago), but had not yet found a place or a permanent role with the Coyotes.

In 48 NHL games over parts of the past three seasons he has just seven goals and nine assists, including six points in 19 games with the Coyotes this season.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this deal for Chicago is the fact that it reunites Strome with winger Alex DeBrincat. The two were teammates together with the Erie Otters during their junior hockey days and absolutely ripped apart the Ontario Hockey League offensively. Together, they were unstoppable. There is obviously a massive difference between the OHL and the NHL, but the two clearly have a history together.

DeBrincat, a second-round draft pick by the Blackhawks in 2016, has already developed into a top-line NHL player and was one of the top rookies in the league a season ago. He is off to another strong start this season with 10 goals and eight assists in his first 24 games.

Will those two get a chance to play together again in Chicago? Will a change of scenery help Strome start to establish himself as an NHL player and realize his potential? Big questions, but probably a worthy gamble if you are a Chicago team that really needs to find more young, impact players given the age of their core and the perpetual struggle that is their salary cap situation.

That brings us to Schmaltz.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Blackhawks a year ago when he scored 21 goals (good enough for third on the team) in what was a breakout season. The red flag in that performance, however, was the 17.8 percent shooting percentage that drove that goal-scoring success.

So far this season the regression monster has taken a giant bite out of his numbers.

As of Sunday, Schmaltz has just two goals (and nine assists) in 23 games for the Blackhawks and has been unable to find any of the good fortunate that followed him around a year ago. Has he been a little snake bit? With a 6.1 percent shooting percentage it would be easy to say yes, but the unfortunate reality for him is that number is probably a lot closer to what should be expected from him.

He is also a restricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a pay raise.

Strome, on the other hand, is still signed through next season at a salary cap hit of $863,333.

Perlini, who had scored 31 goals in his first 131 NHL games, will also be a restricted free agent for the Blackhawks after this season.

What it all boils down to is this…

• Schmaltz has probably, by a very thin margin, been the most successful of these three players at the NHL level. But he is probably not as good as his numbers from the 2017-18 season might indicate.

He and Perlini are also very similar in the sense that they are the same age, have the same contract situation, and have nearly identical goal-scoring numbers throughout the first two-and-a-half years of their careers. Just consider that Perlini has scored 33 goals in 152 career games (with two in 21 games this season), while Schmaltz has scored 29 goals in 162 career games (with two in 23 games this season). 

Schmaltz has better assist numbers, but he has also played alongside superior talent in Chicago.

• Strome, as disappointing as he has been at the NHL level, still has what is by far the highest upside and is still young enough that he could break out if things click for him.

The Blackhawks are basically trading what will probably be a pretty good player for another pretty good player … and a potential star if they can catch lightning in a bottle.

What is not to like about that if you are the Blackhawks?

It is far from a guarantee to work, but it is a fine chance to take.

This is the fourth trade these two teams have made since the summer of 2017.

In June 2017, the Coyotes acquired defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Blackhawks in exchange for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy.

This past January the Coyotes traded Anthony Duclair and Adam Clendening to the Blackhawks for Richard Panik and Dauphin.

Then, just before the start of this season the Coyotes took on the remainder of Marian Hossa‘s contract in a massive, complex trade that also saw Marcus Kruger return to Chicago and Vinnie Hinostroza go to Arizona.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Three questions facing Arizona Coyotes

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Can Antti Raanta put together a complete season as a starting NHL goalie?

Raanta’s numbers from last season look quite good at a first glance. On a poor Coyotes team, he posted a 21-17-6 record with a very solid .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Truth be told, however, he was horrible in the first half of the season but rebounded in a huge way in the second half of the season, posting 13 wins in his final 17 starts.

His impressive run earned him a three-year, $12.75 million deal in April, and a renewed commitment from the goaltender to spend the offseason working at becoming a bona fide starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Questions of Raanta’s fitness heading into last year’s training camp were a concern of head coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s going to be good for me to know what it takes to play lots of games and it’s going to be good for me to kind of see what I need to do more in the summertime, what I want to improve, and come back stronger next year,” Raanta told the Associated Press after he signed his contract.

A .930 starting goaltender playing 60-plus games will very likely put the Coyotes in the playoffs and would just as likely have Raanta in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.

Can Dylan Strome build off the end of the season and make an impact as a full-time player?

Strome struggled to find a spot in the Coyotes’ roster last season.

Here’s a quick timeline:

Oct. 5-7 – plays the first two games of the season and is held pointless.

Oct. 9 – Sent down to Tucson of the American Hockey League.

Oct. 9 – Nov. 25 – tears up the AHL with 26 points in 15 games.

Nov. 26 – Earns recall back to Arizona

Nov. 27 – Dec. 18 – Scores his first NHL goal but that’s all in nine more games with the Coyote.

Dec. 19 – Sent back to Tucson

Mar. 20 – Called back up to Arizona, this time for the rest of the season.

From that point on, Strome seemed to find his stride, amassing three goals and five assists in 10 games to close out the year.

For everyone involved with the former third-overall pick, it was a sigh of relief.

“We’ve made him earn things, and playing a top-six center position as a 20-year-old is a very hard thing to do,” GM John Chayka told the team’s website in May. I think in his latest segment where he came up and played, I thought he showed a lot of improvement. I thought he proved a lot to himself and his teammates that he can handle that type of role and be productive. He’s been productive his whole life. It’s always good to see progression, and I think we’ve seen that with Dylan.”

A center by trade, Strome could make the jump to the wing.

Do the additions of Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk put them into the playoff discussion, or do they need more?

Those moves certainly point Arizona in that direction.

That’s 53 goals being injected to the Coyotes forward group based on last year’s numbers, and based on that, it would move the Coyotes from 30th place in the league to near the top-10 in goals-for.

That’s an excellent upgrade.

Couple that with Strome turning into the player they franchise wants him to be and Keller taking another step forward (and Raanta playing at his best), and the Coyotes could very much be in the playoff discussion providing they can reduce their goals against from last season. They gave up 251 — 11th most in the NHL.

That issue gets partially fixed if Raanta doesn’t get off to a poor start.

A healthy Jakob Chychrun (knee) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (core) would certainly help matters. Both missed significant time last year as a result of injuries.

The simple truth here is that the Coyotes look better on paper this year.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Coyotes’ Dylan Strome earns another NHL chance after AHL scoring tear

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There haven’t been a whole lot of bright spots for the Arizona Coyotes this season. Clayton Keller’s quest for the Calder Trophy is fun to watch and Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s bounce-back season after some personal tragedy has been great to witness.

Now it’s Dylan Strome’s chance to add to the “positives” side of the ledger for the Coyotes after he was recalled from the AHL on Sunday.

You’ll remember that the No. 3 overall pick from the 2015 NHL Draft started the season in Arizona, but couldn’t find a regular spot in Rick Tocchet’s lineup. After being sent back to junior following seven games during the 2016-17 campaign, there was hope Strome could be an impact player in the Coyotes’ lineup this season. It didn’t happen at the start. He recorded zero points and only three shots in 24:18 of ice time over two games.

“I think I’ve proven that I can play there. It’s just about being consistent, I guess, finding a way to be steady on an every-day basis,” he said last month after being sent down via the Arizona Republic. “You’re going to have some good games, but you can’t have those bad games or you’ll be down here [in AHL] or you’ll be in the press box.”

Carrying the pressure of being a top-five draft pick, especially after a junior career in Erie that saw him post back-to-back 100-point seasons, the demotion could have impacted Strome in a negative way. Instead, he went to AHL Tucson and worked his way back to the NHL. With the Roadrunners he recorded points in 12 of 15 games and finished with eight goals and 26 points.

Tocchet said he wanted to see Strome improve his decision-making during his time in the AHL, where he’d also play in different situations on special teams. Strome, Tucson’s top line center, leaves the Roadrunners as their leading scorer and will likely return to the Coyotes lineup Tuesday in Edmonton and face off against his older brother Ryan.

“‘Toc’ likes to play quick, so I really worked on that,” Strome told Dave Vest of the Coyotes website. “I’m just going to play my game, just keep doing what I was doing down in Tucson. Obviously everything is a little bit quicker up there, so I’ve got to adjust to the speed, but I think it’s pretty close so I’m just going to go and have fun.”

The top 10 picks in the 2015 draft is a tough group to be a part of and have a slow start to your career. When you see names like McDavid, Eichel, Marner, Hanifin, Provorov and Werenski hitting triple digits in NHL games played and having major impacts on their teams some may want to throw the “bust” label in Strome’s direction. But after only nine NHL games and still just 20-year-old, he’s already taken his step back — now the only direction he can move is forward.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.