Dylan Strome (right) and Thomas Chabot
The Arizona Coyotes prospect has led a dominant top line for the Otters, who broke past Saint John to set up a date with the rival Windsor Spitfires
With the Memorial Cup semifinal tied 2-2, Erie Otters coach Kris Knoblauch shed his usual calm demeanor and gave his kids a rousing pep talk during the second intermission. Knoblauch went all through the room, telling each player what they were good at and what they needed to do in the third period to beat the Saint John Sea Dogs. What did he tell Dylan Strome?
“Be clutch,” Strome said. “Win faceoffs and maybe put one in the back of the net.”
The captain of the team took those words to heart and promptly broke the tie. The Otters eventually opened the floodgates on Saint John goalie Callum Booth (who was the Sea Dogs’ best player on the night) and came away with a 6-3 victory, propelling the team to the Memorial Cup final.
When Strome’s season began, there was almost an expectation that he would find a job in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes. The franchise had drafted him third overall in 2015, right after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, but before Mitch Marner. But after seven games, 10 healthy scratches and one point, he was assigned back to OHL Erie, where he could continue to get stronger and work on the defensive side of the puck.
He could also make one more run at a title. The Otters hadn’t won the OHL since 2002, even with talents such as McDavid, Andre Burakovsky and Connor Brown in the lineup. But Strome, with the help of a cadre of top forwards (linemates Alex DeBrincat and Warren Foegele plus Anthony Cirelli and Taylor Raddysh on the second unit), pushed through the playoffs and clinched the J. Ross Robertson Cup. Now the team is one win away from their ultimate goal, the Memorial Cup.
“It feels kinda surreal that we’re there,” Strome said. “We’ve had this date on the board for a long time now. We’ve come a long way. We’ve had 5/28/17 on the board, it’s what we look at before we go out on the ice.”
And the challenge will be great, with the host Windsor Spitfires on the docket. Not only will the Spits have a tremendous home-ice advantage, but they’re also the only team to hand Erie a loss in this tourney of champions. But in Strome, Erie has a force up the middle.
When he was drafted by Arizona, Strome was seen as a potential No. 1 center for the future. His 6-foot-3 frame was very projectable and his ability to slow the game down when he had the puck opened up myriad offensive opportunities. There was work to do, but the potential was obvious.
Now, Strome has become that Great White Shark. While he’s still not fast, he does have more jump in his game and his combination of size and smarts puts defenders on their heels.
“It’s his vision,” said Erie defenseman Darren Raddysh. “He can see plays that some guys don’t and he’s probably got one of the best shots I’ve seen in my career.”
Against Saint John, he absolutely terrorized Ottawa Senators prospect Thomas Chabot – the best defenseman in all of junior hockey and MVP of the world juniors. And Chabot was ably backed by partner Simon Bourque, the Montreal Canadiens pick. Chabot eventually got a goal of his own against the Strome line to make the game interesting at the end, but the puck rarely seemed to leave the Saint John end when Strome’s line was on the ice.
Next season, the Arizona Coyotes have a delightful problem on their hands. Strome will once again push for a job, while fellow young pivot Clayton Keller is ready to make a full-time impact in the NHL. Keller doesn’t have size, but his hands and mind are lightning-quick and the feet are pretty impressive, too. The Coyotes will be very young if both are in the lineup, but they might also be deadly – with the best yet to come. In Strome’s case, the longer wait may end up being worth it after all.