As the second of three hockey playing brothers, Dylan Strome is primed and ready to become the No. 1 center Arizona desperately needs against the elite pivots in the Pacific Division.
The Strome family has a tradition. Three sons have been drafted into the OHL over the years, and a couple nights before each one has left home, the family has thrown a big party featuring all their relatives. The son who was leaving would give a speech, and things would get misty. OK, fine. There were full-on waterworks. Ryan is the eldest and currently a member of the New York Islanders. Matthew is the youngest and just gave his speech last summer before departing the family home in Mississauga for Hamilton. And in the middle is Dylan, an Arizona Coyotes draft pick who has been tearing up the OHL as a member of the high-flying Erie Otters for nearly three seasons. “We thank everyone for the help and generosity they’ve given us,” Dylan said. "They’ve followed us for so many years of our lives, and they know we’re going off to do what we love to do. For them to help us out so much, you get emotional when you talk about it. I was crying, Matt was crying, Ryan cried. I cried when Ryan said it, I cried when Matt said it. My parents were both crying. It’s OK to show emotion in our family.”
When Don Maloney thinks about Dylan, the
former Coyotes GM may not be welling up, but it’s hard not to picture the smile on his face, knowing he might have drafted one of the toughest pieces to find in the NHL today – a big No. 1 center. Dylan isn’t there yet, but he’s not far off. And to understand how he finds himself on the cusp of his dream, you have to look at where he came from – that home in the Toronto suburbs where hockey was life and time was always a white rabbit. Just five-and-a-half years separate 22-year-old Ryan and 17-year-old Matthew, so you can imagine what life was like for father, Chris, an electrician, and mother, Trish, an insurance broker, who has worked since Matthew was in Grade 1. “Just crazy,” Trish said. “There’s two of us and three of them. We had to divide and conquer.” With both parents working, the Stromes often got family and friends to help out with rides to games. The neighboring McLeod clan was there, and they could identify with the havoc, since they also had three talented sons. Their eldest, Matthew, plays NCAA hockey with Canisius College, middle child Michael is a top-10 2016 draft prospect with OHL Mississauga and youngest child Ryan is Michael’s teammate with the Steelheads. Ryan is a potential top pick for the 2018 NHL draft. But outside help could only be counted on so often, and a lot of the responsibility fell to Ryan, who would mind his brothers for an hour or so after school until their parents got in from work. “We looked to Ryan a lot for help, so he had to grow up fast,” Trish said. “Dylan and Matt are so close in age, they’re almost like twins.” For Dylan, Ryan was (and still is) a great model for success, and Dylan never took that for granted as the middle child. “It was unique,” he said. “In one way, you have your brother who looks up to you, and in another way you look up to your older brother. You learn from your older brother, and apply it to your younger brother. I would watch Ryan and see the way he prepared for games, and I would try to do that so Matt could follow me.”
After scoring the overtime winner in the OHL Cup final for the minor midget Toronto Marlboros, the youngest Strome made the jump to the OHL. Matthew was taken eighth overall by the Hamilton Bulldogs this past summer and is a potential first-round NHL pick in 2017. And, true to type, he has leaned on Dylan for support in the freshman campaign. “He taught me a lot, especially about not getting down on yourself,” Matthew said. “His first year he was in a slump early, but he got out of it.” And boy, did he. Dylan soared during his sophomore campaign with the Otters, winning the OHL scoring title with 129 points, notching six in the final game of the season to fend off London Knights star Mitch Marner. That kept him in elite company for the draft, where teammate Connor McDavid was grabbing headline after headline alongside American standout Jack Eichel. Arizona held the No. 3 pick, and though Dylan was an excellent option, there were outside calls for Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, the top defenseman in the draft, or even the super-skilled Marner. But Maloney knew what he wanted. “Absolutely,” he said. “There were some other very good players, but all top teams need that center that makes players around him better. It wasn’t a hard choice. We’ve had good, solid centers in Arizona but not with that offensive upside. We believe Dylan can be that front-line center.” And if you want that elite pivot, you pretty much have to draft and develop him yourself. How many top centers have been traded over the past decade? Joe Thornton, Tyler Seguin, Brad Richards, maybe Ryan Johansen. It’s not a long list. The Coyotes have a great stable of young talent up front led by Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, but they’re wingers. Dylan could be that missing piece, and if his initial foray into pro hockey is any indication, the future is coming soon. Maloney didn’t have high expectations for Dylan during the youngster’s first NHL training camp this past summer. After all, Dylan went through the draft whirlwind and all the accompanying media duties, then attended Canada’s summer world junior camp in Calgary and Arizona’s rookie camp. From there he went to main camp for what was assumed to be a taste and nothing more. But Dylan showed up to work and pushed his way all through camp, getting into five pre-season games before the Coyotes sent him back to Erie. While he was up with Arizona, he proved to Maloney what intelligence he had on the ice, not to mention the courage to play his game, despite the lofty competition. “He wasn’t intimidated to get the puck and make a play,” Maloney said. “If he thought he had a chance to stay out during a shift and make an offensive play, he would take it. He’s such an intelligent player.” As for Dylan, the experience itself was naturally killer. He received lots of positive feedback from coaches and players during camp, and his first pre-season tilt was in front of a sold-out crowd in Los Angeles. He also had the chance to take on one of his idols, Joe Thornton, when the Coyotes lined up against San Jose for a couple exhibition matches. Dylan literally got to face off against ‘Jumbo Joe’ in the dot, and, yeah, the kid took it seriously. “I won that one,” he said with a smile. “I tried extra hard.” But Dylan wasn’t broken up when the Desert Dogs sent him back to Erie. He needs to get stronger, and the Otters were once again going to be both a good team and a fun one to watch. McDavid may have been off to the NHL, but 2016 prospect Alex DeBrincat remained, as did offensive defenseman and Maple Leafs pick Travis Dermott, making for a very entertaining power play unit. The Otters have been the top team in all of major junior this season, with Dylan as captain, and have a chance to do what last year’s squad could not: win the OHL title. Dylan also played a big role on Canada’s world junior team in Helsinki, though, like many Canuck squads in recent years, there was more heartache than elation. The team struggled to come together as a whole and, after a mediocre round-robin that ended with a listless loss to Sweden, the Canadians were bounced by eventual champion Finland in the quarterfinal.
In the grand scheme of things, failure at one tournament won’t mean much in a few years when Dylan is wearing an Arizona jersey full time. Not that he’s rushing things. The man-strength he needs will take time, and if he wants to be that guy facing other teams’ top checkers, the one who will have to stare down Anze Kopitar or Ryan Getzlaf in the near future, the muscle will take precedence over the mind. Dylan knows this. He knows of the development marathon. “I’ve played two and a half years of junior hockey – that’s basically my career so far,” he said. “It feels like the longest time ever, but when you think about it, you want to be in the NHL for 10, 15, 20 years. This is nothing, this is just the start of it.” In the meantime, he will chase that OHL title, he will continue to hone his game and he will continue to get and give support to his family. Because the Stromes are still grinding, even though the kids are a bit older. In early February, Chris and Trish saw Dylan play against Sarnia on a Friday night, Ryan take on the Red Wings Saturday afternoon, then they hopped back across the border as Dylan faced off against Windsor that night. Sunday afternoon was in Hamilton, with Matthew suiting up for the Bulldogs. They typically get to three or four games a week, with Ryan usually getting the short end of the geographic straw. Getting drafted second overall by the Otters meant Dylan’s junior destination had provided the biggest challenge before Ryan got to the pro ranks. Ryan was originally drafted by Barrie before a trade sent him to Niagara, both cities an easy one-hour drive from Mississauga. Hamilton is also close for when the folks visit Matthew. But Erie meant a border crossing, cell phone hassles and American high school. Still, you won’t hear any complaints. “Whether it was going to be ‘The Soo’ or Niagara or Hamilton, the higher they could get drafted was what they strived for,” Chris said. “It was never a negative. It was always an honor.” Which takes us back to those celebratory family send-offs. No matter where Dylan finds himself in the future – back in Erie next year, straight to Arizona or even AHL Springfield in 2017 should he need more seasoning at any point – he knows he has backers. His buddy McDavid is waiting for him in the Pacific Division, while a couple McLeod boys could easily find their way to the NHL within five years as well. And there will always be Stromes, whether on the ice or in the stands. And when Dylan makes his debut, there will probably be tears, because there always have been in the past. “But,” Trish said, “they were happy tears.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Future Watch edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.