Wes Wolfe kept a close eye on his television during a recent Arizona Coyotes game as forward Dylan Strome battled for puck possession on the side boards in the Edmonton zone before moving his feet, breaking up the play and creating a good scoring chance.
The Erie Otters assistant coach was later asked how the NHL rookie would have approached the play last season while starring for the Ontario Hockey League team.
“He probably would have positioned himself above the puck and got his stick in an area to try to break up the play as opposed to applying pressure and getting his stick on the puck by moving his feet,” Wolfe said over the phone from his Pennsylvania office.
“Playing faster” is how Strome believed he needed to play to realize his dream of playing in a young, speedy and skilled NHL after grabbing MVP honours in a loss to the host Windsor Spitfires in the Memorial Cup final last May. Criticized for his skating in junior, the six-foot-three, 200 pounder spent the summer in Arizona working regularly on stride length with Coyotes skating coach Dawn Braid.
Following an underwhelming two-game stint with the Coyotes to start the season, Strome was assigned to their American Hockey League affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., where he immediately thrived on a line with fellow Canadians and first-round draft picks Nick Merkley and Lawson Crouse.
The 20-year-old Strome, who amassed 114 goals and 354 points in three-plus seasons with Erie, forced his way back to Arizona with 26 points in 15 games for a 1.73 points-per-game averaged that topped the AHL.
“There was fire in his eyes,” said first-year Roadrunners head coach Mike Van Ryn of Strome, whom the Coyotes drafted third overall in 2015, after Edmonton selected Connor McDavid and Buffalo chose Jack Eichel. “He was on a mission and stayed on it.
Dylan Strome has been selected as the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for November. In nine games played with Tucson during that period, the 20-year-old registered 16 points (7G, 9A).
“I was expecting a slower start from Dylan but his positional play got better, his quickness on pucks got better. He was winning second-man races, forcing turnovers and started to grasp the [AHL] game. The first step for a young guy is to do it in practice.”
Late last season, Wolfe noticed a change in Strome’s game after Van Ryn, then the Coyotes’ development coach, delivered a message on behalf of management while watching an Otters road game.
‘It’s amazing how well he understands the game. His hockey sense is off the charts.’
— Tucson Roadrunners head coach Mike Van Ryn on Coyotes forward Dylan Strome
“They wanted [then-head coach Kris Knoblauch and I] to encourage Dylan to play with more pace,” recalled Wolfe. “Get in on the forecheck, force turnovers and be the driver in regaining puck possession.”
When Van Ryn began working with Strome in Tucson, his only experience with the youngster had been coaching against him for three seasons in the OHL as an assistant and later head coach with the Kitchener Rangers.
“He’s just a kid that knows how to put numbers on the board,” Van Ryn said of Strome, who scored his first NHL goal in his 12th game in Saturday’s 5-0 win over New Jersey. “When you sit down and do film with him it’s amazing how well he understands the game. His hockey sense is off the charts.”
Early on with the Roadrunners, Strome realized he couldn’t admire his passes and began moving his feet more than ever, according to Van Ryn, who doesn’t expect Strome to play in the AHL again this season.
“He’s learned to become a pro and that how he practises is a good indicator of how he plays [in a game]. He’s made strides in that area,” said Van Ryn, who spent parts of three seasons in the AHL before a 353-game career as an NHL defenceman.
Strome played seven games for the Coyotes last season before they sent him back to junior in mid-November. After the native of Mississauga, Ont., captained Canada’s world junior squad to a silver medal, everything came together for him in last year’s OHL Western Conference final against Owen Sound after Erie eliminated the rival London Knights in seven games.
Memorial Cup MVP
Strome had four goals and eight points in a six-game victory versus the Attack but stood out in Knoblauch’s eyes for his backchecking, forcing turnovers and physical play that allowed linemates Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh to retrieve loose pucks.
“He was our best player from then on, every single night,” said Wolfe, referring to the Otters’ OHL title win over Mississauga and the Memorial Cup, where Erie’s captain led all players with 11 points in five games, including a record-seven-point outing against the Saint John Sea Dogs. “He was MVP of that tournament because of how complete his game was.”
Playing a complete game and gaining confidence will go a long way in Strome sticking with the Coyotes, who were 29th in the 30-team NHL entering play Monday with a 7-18-7 record.
“I’m adjusting every day and looking forward to building a strong case to stay here,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot more fun when we start winning and get a [win] streak going. We have the team to do it.”