McDavid missed, but Strome sure of Otters

Dylan Strome scored in a shootout to lift the undefeated Erie Otters to a 4-3 victory over the Peterborough Petes (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Connor McDavid is a special player. When you’re on the ice with him, you have to be ready for the puck and know to look out for him to give it right back. Or you can go ahead with the open shot when you get the chance, because you know he’d want you to score.

And when you’re not on the ice with him—when you know you won’t be for five more weeks—the game plan doesn’t change, according to Dylan Strome.

Upon hearing that McDavid would be sidelined with a fractured bone in his hand, the knee-jerk reaction from the press was that much of the onus would now be on Strome to take over the reins of the Erie Otters’ near unstoppable winning record. After all, aside from McDavid, Strome is the obvious go-to guy. He can move the puck around with ease and has a whopping 45 points in 21 games, an impressive number for a second-line centre. Much has been made about the NHL draft spotlight shifting to Strome and his ability to play independently of his phenom teammate.

Strome himself isn’t too fussed. “I think the media is hyping it up a bit too much,” he says.

While No. 97's absence inevitably means No. 19 has to perform, there's something that Strome wants to make very clear: For him, it has never been about competing for the spotlight. It's about maintaining the Otters' spot at the top of the OHL's Western Conference. "Just because one player is gone, it doesn't mean that only one player has to step up. Everyone has to step up. We're a whole team."

Strome's strong start to the season has earned him top-five rankings on many 2015 NHL Draft watch lists. But he insists the big day in June takes a back seat. "I try to block it out as much as I can, because if you worry too much about that, you're not going to be as effective on the ice. Whatever happens happens."

Dylan's older brother, New York Islanders forward Ryan Strome, told him prior to this season that reading too closely into rankings isn't going to help his performance. Focusing on each game and continuing to work hard is what's going to continue getting him noticed. Strome prefers to tout the importance of his team's success; personal accolades come second.

Of course, captain McDavid was a big part of the team's success. "It was tough to deal with when it happened," Strome says. "But we knew we were going to lose him at some point during the year because of world juniors. It just sort of happened earlier."

The Otters saw an immediate dip following McDavid's absence, dropping two straight games for the first time all season. The stumble revealed their need to work on burying all their chances, but Strome is confident in his team. He singles out teammate Alex DeBrincat's 36-point start to his rookie year as an integral part of keeping Erie on top. "He's a small, gritty forward," says Strome. "He can put the puck in the net and he likes to score goals and he's really good at finishing. Hopefully he can keep it up with Connor gone."

The Otters picked up their first win without McDavid on Wednesday morning in a 4–3 shootout, a game in which Strome scored two goals in the first period—his 15th and 16th of the season. They had a 17-3-0-1 record going into Friday night against the Sarnia Sting. "We're good enough to get wins without everyone changing up the way they play," says Strome.

Off the ice, Strome, McDavid and DeBrincat are all close friends; maybe the closest three guys on the team. On the ice, they're all top-five OHL scorers flying above the 35-point mark. "It's not often you see a couple guys on your team at the top of the scoring race with Connor and Alex," says 17-year-old Strome, all smiles.

It's tough playing without a good friend and important teammate, but Strome believes their captain will be back on the ice and untouched by the hype surrounding his unlikely decision to fight Mississauga Steelheads centre Bryson Cianfrone last Tuesday. "If you look at Connor, he's probably the best in the world at not listening in on what other people are saying," he says.

"There isn't really much he can do at this point but rest and heal. Hopefully he gets better soon."