Can Dylan Strome Carry the Erie Otters to the Memorial Cup?

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Postgame comments from Dylan Strome following a 6-1 loss in London:


CAN DYLAN STROME CARRY THE ERIE OTTERS TO THE MEMORIAL CUP?

The Erie Otters have been leading the OHL’s Western Conference all season, and captain Dylan Strome has been a mainstay as one of the league’s marquee players. Although Alex DeBrincat was the one grabbing headlines with his incredibly fast scoring pace to start the season, it has been his linemate Strome who has proven yet again to be one of the CHL’s best players.

The Otters have been at the top of the CHL’s power rankings pretty much all year, and would have to be considered a serious contender to represent the OHL in Red Deer.

However, Erie’s spot at the top of their conference has recently become less of a sure thing. As it stands, the only team with a real chance of catching them is the red-hot London Knights. The Otters were in London on Thursday, where they posed no challenge whatsoever to the home team, losing 6-1. Strome did engineer the Otters’ only goal, but he also took a four-minute penalty for high sticking in the second period. Strome showed his maturity after the game though, taking some of the responsibility for a crucial loss.

“We shot ourselves in the foot by taking dumb penalties, myself included,” he said. “A four minute penalty gives them momentum, and gives us four less minutes to score a goal.” Although London didn’t score on the power-play (shockingly), Strome’s leadership qualities and offensive-minded attitude shine through here.

Strome was matched up all night with Knights starlet Mitch Marner, whom he’s constantly been compared to since the NHL Draft last June. Marner, drafted one spot behind Strome, is perhaps the only other player in the league who can lay a claim to being the best. That means it’s always bound to be a hell of a showdown when their two teams square off. Marner definitely won this round, recording three assists, one of which landed him on every sports network in the country. However, the jury’s still out on who’s the better player.

Strome’s current totals of 32 goals and 63 assists are good enough for fifth in the OHL, behind Barrie’s Kevin Labanc and London’s entire first line of Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak, and Marner. The latter two, Strome himself called “the two best players in the league.” Of course, the captain of a team that just lost 6-1 to those guys should be anything but cocky, but Strome has to be considered at least on their level.

With previous captain Connor McDavid’s sentenced to life in Edmonton, Strome has had enormous shoes to fill this season. The most prominent argument against drafting him last year was that his numbers were inflated by playing on McDavid’s line. However, a year later it’s Strome who is inflating his linemates’ numbers (i.e. Alex DeBrincat). His points per game this year is 1.94, which is actually higher than last year’s 1.90. Granted, he is a year older, but that would definitely suggest he was scoring on his own merit last year.

“You’re expected to score goals and put up points,” said Strome. “It’s kind of a challenge every night to do that, but I enjoy the challenge.” He likely won’t match his staggering 129 points from a year ago, having missed almost a month this year for the World Juniors, but the averages don’t lie. His blistering shot is one of several lethal weapons in his arsenal, as is his gifted playmaking ability, and vision for picking out passes.

Strome’s 6’3, 194-pound frame is likely what made the Arizona Coyotes pick him ahead of Mitch Marner. He can lay hits, but more often he uses his size to win battles on the boards in the offensive zone. Unlike many players with a physical component to their game, though, Strome is no slouch. He is now beyond the days of being criticized for his foot speed, having improved to the point where it’s now one of the most impressive things about him, as he can combine that with his puckhandling skill to do this:

He doesn’t know the word complacency, though. “I’m working on a lot of things, mostly my defensive game,” said Strome. “I’m just trying to work on the little things that are going to get me to the next level as quick as possible. Sometimes when a guy’s covering you, you’ve got to find a way to get away from him, you’ve got to find a way to bounce around him and get better on the checks.”

Strome’s defensive game is actually pretty good, but it’s interesting here to see not only how he sees his own game, but how hungry he is to keep improving.

Having to lead his team, Strome hasn’t let the added responsibility get to him. “[There’s] not too much pressure,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good team here, and a lot of guys have been through it, we try to not put too much pressure on one guy or two guys or three guys. We’ve got 47 wins this year because we’re a team.”

Others don’t see it that way, though. Strome is quite clearly the Otters’ most important player, and will be the one expected to carry them into the playoffs. The season ended in heartbreaking fashion last year when Erie’s potent offence was utterly shut down by the pesky Oshawa Generals. This likely being Strome’s final season of junior hockey, the fans have high hopes for this playoff run.

The OHL’s Western Conference playoffs will be a dogfight, though. Erie will be up against London, as well as the Kitchener Rangers and Sarnia Sting, all of whom could conceivably win the championship. The Knights especially pose a threat to the Otters, now knocking on the door of first place. Thursday’s game was a potential conference final preview in some respects, and the two teams will close out their seasons with a home-and-home on March 18th and 19th.

Strome would still be confident in a seven-game series against the Knights though, who Erie has struggled with in a couple games even before Thursday. “I think we’ve dominated them a couple games, and they’ve dominated us a couple games,” he said with a shrug. “It’s really anyone’s game, so if we do end up playing in the playoffs, it’s a long road to get there but nonetheless it’ll be a heck of a series.”

Whatever happens, the OHL final is bound to come down to a matchup of whoever manages to come out of the West, against a much fresher Kingston Frontenacs team. Erie would likely still be considered the frontrunner to make it there, but that will depend on Strome’s ability to lead a team at this level when the real pressure is on.

Strome’s Otters team is capable of winning the OHL championship, but not without a huge contribution from him. If he turns up the heat, they may even be Memorial Cup favourites.

 

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