Rarely are top slots in the NHL draft in play when you get to this point in the CHL playoffs, a handful of games from the Memorial Cup. This year is an exception however.
For fans, Topic No. 1 of any conversation this last week has been the amazing performance by Connor McDavid who has pretty much put the Erie Otters on his back and led them to a 3-2 lead over the CHL’s top-ranked team this season, the Soo Greyhounds.
Watch Sault Ste. Marie vs. Erie in Game 6 on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 360
Said one scouting director Wednesday: "I don’t go far enough back to have scouted Lemieux but [McDavid] is ahead of Crosby and anyone else I’ve scouted. I have never seen anybody with his skating ability."
But again, any discussion about McDavid is for fans at this point. NHL scouts can watch him but have no need to file reports unless for posterity—he’s going No. 1 to Edmonton, plain and simple.
No, for scouts, the jury as it were, the more pressing matter before the court is Dylan Strome, McDavid’s Erie teammate. NHL Central Scouting has Strome No. 4 among North American skaters on its final rankings. With his 45 goals and 84 assists in 68 regular-season games, you’d say that he fits the profile of a top-five pick, no doubt. With his nine goals and eight assists in 13 playoff games so far this spring, he has at least, statistically, followed up an amazing season with a good playoff.
That might sound like damning with faint praise but:
"Skating is never going to be a plus with him," said one NHL scout who took in Game 3 in Erie this week. "I think it shows up a little more against Soo than maybe with some other teams. The Soo is one of the fastest teams if not the fastest I’ve seen in the OHL in the last 10 seasons. They make average skaters or even a little above average skaters look slow."
Certainly that’s a factor. Then again, if you watched Game 4, a wild, wide-open 7-5 victory for Erie, you wondered if there was more to Strome’s story. On many shifts in that game you had to wonder if Strome has been playing through injury. Even with Otters on the breakout, he was behind the play, labouring, struggling to catch up.
At this point of a season players are banged up, especially someone who plays as central a role as Strome did with the Otters. There’s no doubt he’s giving it as much as he’s got—or, more fairly, as much as he has left. If it were only about the Otters beating out the Soo and advancing to the OHL final against the winner of the Oshawa-North Bay series, then let the chips fall. For Strome, and for a few NHL teams, there’s much more in play, though.
A strong showing by Strome could move him into the No. 3 slot in the NHL draft, into the slot owned by Arizona. Some think that the Coyotes will be interested in Noah Hanifan, Boston College defenceman, the No. 3 ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting. (Put me down in the minority opinion that has Hanifan as the second best defenceman in the draft behind Ivan Provorov of Brandon.) Some have London’s right winger Mitch Marner in the mix as well.
Strome could pass all contenders with a strong showing through the playoffs, against the best teams with the stakes as high as they can get, but he wouldn’t be passing anyone based on his last game in this series.
"I thought he was pretty good in [Game 3] but not in the next one," one scout said. "Maybe he was already hurt and aggravated the injury. I didn’t see anything that happened out there that had him hurting."
It’s something to watch as the series heads back to the Soo for Game 5. It’s not as if Strome is in any danger of dropping out of the top 10. Still, Strome is operating under more scrutiny this spring than at any point this season—with teams’ slot in the draft established. Will Arizona, bumped out of the No. 2 slot, look to Strome to throw on the sweater they had hoped to drape over Jack Eichel’s back? Right now it looks like he’d struggle to keep up with the Coyotes’ Maxi Domi and Anthony Duclair.
If he’s there at No. 4, would the Leafs look to take a big centre who’s an average skater ahead of the hyper-skilled Marner and Kingston’s bruising winger Lawson Crouse? It might be that Strome maxes out as a No. 2 centre and then in-house opinion on William Nylander’s prospects down the line start to factor in.
I’ve mentioned before in this space that one team that might have landed No. 3 was looking strictly at Marner and Crouse for that slot and weren’t focusing on either Strome or Hanifan. No doubt Strome is struggled in Game 4 against the Soo, plain as day. It was tougher to tell if he was falling.