WINNIPEG — At first glance, Dylan Strome couldn’t help but be a tad confused by the situation.
After finishing second on the Chicago Blackhawks in goals (22) and fourth in points (48 in 69 games) last season, word was circulating that Strome’s qualifying offer wasn’t going to be offered, which would leave him as an unrestricted free agent.
While there had been some bumps in the road and some unexpected healthy scratches, Strome was still one of the most productive players on his team at only 25 years old.
A third-overall pick in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes, all signs pointed to Strome’s best hockey being ahead of him.
Yet one of the worst teams in the NHL was deciding that Strome wasn’t going to be part of their plans?
“It was different. I didn’t really expect it, to be honest,” said Strome, recalling the series of events of the summer. “I thought I had a good year last year and in the second half of the year, I was playing 20 minutes a night and the team was above .500.
“My agent said it best. They made a business decision and that’s the path their team was going to take. You’ve got to understand that.”
The Blackhawks, who had traded Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach and were clearly in rebuilding mode, had informed Strome’s agents of their choice on a Friday, with free agency set to open the following Wednesday, so there wasn’t much time to process what had transpired.
Strome quickly turned his attention to channelling his energy towards finding a new place to play and the best situation for him.
“I pretty much only had the weekend and a couple of days to kind of realize that I wasn’t going to be back on the Blackhawks this year,” said Strome. “Emotionally, it was such a whirlwind of a week, with everything that was going on. There are 31 teams you can be on and you’ve got to figure things out pretty quickly, with where you’re going to live and the area, but first of all where you’re going to play. That’s the main thing.
“Washington reached out on the first day of free agency and we talked a few times. There was some uncertainty with injuries and cap issues and stuff like that.”
Part of that uncertainty was related to a hip injury veteran pivot Nicklas Backstrom was dealing with.
Backstrom returned to action on Jan. 8 and has appeared in nine games for the Capitals this season. He scored his first goal of the season on Sunday in the team’s tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Strome had some other offers to mull over as well, but ultimately he felt the opportunity with the Capitals made the most sense for him right now and he was comfortable betting on himself with a shorter-term, show-me contract.
“At the beginning, I was kind of wondering if a team was going to offer two or three years but I told my agent I would do a one-year deal,” said Strome. “I’m confident in myself and confident in what I can do. I had a good off-season up until that point and was feeling really good. Sometimes it’s easier for that team to take on that one-year contract. For myself, knowing I’m an RFA after the year. You trust yourself and know that team has your rights, so if you do enough, hopefully the team likes you enough for you to stick around.
“That was my thought process.”
One of the interesting parts of the process was being able to lean on his older brother, Ryan, who was an unrestricted free agent, for support.
“My brother was going through the same thing. He was close to signing with the Rangers and there were talks about bringing him back,” said Dylan. “It was his first time hitting the market in free agency and I wasn’t expected to be, but we were (free agents) at the same time and we were getting some of the same calls.”
Did it get awkward if certain teams were interested in both players but could only sign one of them? Or was there actually a time when Strome thought they might end up as a package deal as teammates?
“It was kind of weird because we have similar numbers and play the same position,” said Dylan. “It was more about finding the right fit for each other. There wasn’t too much talk about going to the same team, though it crossed our minds once or twice.
“When it comes down to it, this was his time to kind of cash in and set up his life financially and he did a good job with that (signing a five-year, $25-million deal with the Anaheim Ducks). He was pretty nervous going into the day, not knowing what was going to happen. In his situation, he was looking for a long-term deal, thinking about where he was going to live and where his kids were going to grow up and things like that. For me, it was about what team was most interested and with the talent that Washington has, it was a no-brainer for me.”
The fit with the Capitals has been a solid one, as Strome is third on the Capitals in scoring with 11 goals and 36 points in 50 games, and he’s spent ample time skating on a line with Alex Ovechkin.
As for Ryan Strome, he’s got 10 goals and 25 points in 50 games while averaging just under 17 minutes of ice time for a Ducks team that is rebuilding and in the heart of the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.
ROCKET RICHARD PURSUIT
There’s been plenty of discussion around what Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has been doing this season, especially as it pertains to his goal scoring prowess — as he continues to lead the Rocket Richard chase with 41 goals, leaving him three up on David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins going into Sunday.
Strome isn’t surprised by the turn of events, having been a teammate and frequent linemate of McDavid’s during his time in the Ontario Hockey League with the Erie Otters.
“It’s just because he gets so many more assists than everyone else,” said Strome, referring to the 51 apples that has McDavid leading the Art Ross race with 92 points in just 50 games. “This will be his fourth year with 40 and not many players do that, especially a guy that gets that many assists.
“He’s shooting more and I think he talked about it, he took a little bit more time in the offseason to work on his shot. He’s taking one-timers now and he’s finding different ways to score. His release is really good and he doesn’t get enough credit for how good of a shot he has.”
It’s been a tough season so far for the Philadelphia Flyers, who entered their break by collecting a tidy 4-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.
The Flyers are seventh in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 21-21-9 and enter Sunday’s action six points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and with three teams to leapfrog in order to push for the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference.
One of the bright spots for the Flyers this season has been the play of netminder Carter Hart, who made 40 saves on Saturday for his first shutout of the campaign — and fourth of his career.
On a team with a minus-20 goal differential, Hart sits ninth in the NHL in goals saved above average (14.4), according to Money Puck, which leaves him just behind the likes of Karel Vemeljka of the Arizona Coyotes (15.7), Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars (15.8), Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers (17.3) and Andrei Vasilivskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning (17.6).
“A very good season. A season in a city and with a team that’s a bit of a graveyard for goalies,” said Flyers head coach John Tortorella, whose club has picked up at least a point in three of the past four games. “Pressure is on the goalies. We’re trying to play better defence in front of him. We’ve been up and down with that all year long, but he has been as steady as you could be.
“If he has a bad game, it doesn’t bother him, if he has a good game, he just keeps it flat-line. I’ve been very impressed by him.”
SUPPORT FOR BOUDREAU
Jets head coach Rick Bowness has been around the game a long time and knows what those in the coaching fraternity sign up for, but he was among many who voiced support for recently fired Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, whose dismissal rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
Bowness wasn’t about to publicly attack the Canucks organization for the way they handled — or mishandled the situation — but it was obvious that he didn’t like the way things went down either as Boudreau was left twisting in the wind until the hiring of Rick Tocchet was made official.
“No comment on that one,” said Bowness. “Nice try, though. I don’t like to talk about other organizations. I’ve been in contact with Bruce. I’ve known Bruce for a long time. I always reach out when any coach gets fired in this league because I hate when that happens. It’s part of what we all sign up for. It’s something you never want to go through. So I reach out to them all and I reached out to Bruce.”
You can be sure that Bowness wasn’t the only one who reached out to the popular coach who showed plenty of emotion and handled an extremely difficult situation with class as he realized his tenure with the Canucks was coming to an end.
• The statement game terminology is thrown around quite liberally these days, but one of those marquee matchups occurred earlier this week as the Tampa Bay Lightning earned a 3-2 victory over the league-leading Boston Bruins. The see-saw affair lived up to the advance billing and Victor Hedman broke the tie in the third period, snapping the Bruins six-game winning streak in the process. Nikita Kucherov continued his wizardry by assisting on all three Lightning goals. Kucherov (72) trails only McDavid (92) and Leon Draisaitl (76) of the Oilers in the points race. The Bruins still hold a comfortable lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Lightning in the Atlantic Division, but the Bolts finished the week with a 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, extending their home-ice winning streak to 12 games (which is a franchise record).
• The jockeying for position and teams battling to remain in the playoff hunt are heating up and the Florida Panthers required a riveting rally of their own on Saturday against the Bruins, who took the lead on a Pastrnak marker with 49 seconds to go in regulation time. But Aleksander Barkov, who will replace Auston Matthews in the NHL All-Star Game, tied the game with an extra-attacker goal with three seconds to go and Sam Reinhart scored 17 seconds into overtime to propel the Panthers to a much-needed victory. The Panthers are 5-3-2 in their past 10 games and remain three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (who also hold three games in hand) for the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins picked up a valuable extra point in a 7-6 overtime win over the Panthers earlier in the week when Kris Letang delivered the OT marker to cap a three-point night (two goals, one assist).
• Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar became the franchise leader in wins on Tuesday, passing Michel Bergeron. Bednar’s latest win (his 267th in 502 career NHL games) came on Saturday, a 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues. It’s been a remarkable journey for Bednar, whose club goes into the break having won seven of the past eight games and is rocketing up the Central Division standings.
In case you are curious about Bednar’s long and winding road to becoming an elite NHL head coach, here are two stories I wrote about him during the run to the Stanley Cup for the Avalanche last season: