By Mike Zeisberger – Toronto Sun
As the face of the Canada’s world junior team, Dylan Strome still flashes the odd grimace when he thinks about the twist his career has taken. And understandably so.
For the first seven weeks of the NHL season, the rookie forward would walk into the Arizona Coyotes dressing room on gameday and look at the lineup board on the wall, searching to see if his number would be part of the team’s four lines or was listed among the healthy scratches.
All that changed a week ago when word came down from management: You are being returned to the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
“I’m not going to lie — it sucked,” Strome said from Erie on Wednesday, discussing his candid feelings about being sent back to junior.
It’s easy to relate to the kid’s disappointment, his frustration, his concerns. At the same time, he’s using these emotions as positive motivation, fanning his determination to overcome the immediate challenges that lie ahead.
Moreover, he must concentrate on his own game — and not of those from his draft class who are up in the pros right now.
On Tuesday night, for example, each of the top five players taken in the 2015 NHL draft had a positive impact for their respective teams.
First overall pick Connor McDavid registered two points for the host Edmonton Oilers in a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
No. 2 selection Jack Eichel returned from a high ankle sprain and registered a successful regular season debut, accruing a goal and an assist to help his Buffalo Sabres defeat the Ottawa Senators 5-4.
Back in Edmonton, fourth selection Mitch Marner chipped in with an assist in the Leafs victory, pulling him into a temporary tie with Winnipeg Jets phenom Patrik Laine atop the NHL rookie scoring race with 19 points,
And in New York, Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Noah Hanifin, the fifth overall pick, finished a respectable plus-1 in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.
Of course, none of those members of the Class of 2015 had a more lucrative night than Strome. Just hours after Hockey Canada announced he was a no-brain inclusion on the Team Canada roster, Strome shredded Mississauga for a goal and four assists in a lopsided 9-2 Erie victory, upping the gifted centre’s point total to 10 in just three games since rejoining the Otters.
The key difference here: McDavid, Eichel, Marner and Hanifin all are still in the NHL. Strome isn’t.
But this isn’t a story of a bitter young player who feels he was hard done by. Far from it.
Indeed, Dylan Strome is more focused than ever to succeed, beginning with the upcoming world junior championship.
“I’m a different person from the guy who was here a year ago,” he said. “Being at the NHL level, I learned life lessons. I learned about being a team player. I learned that you get treated the same, whether you make $800,000 or $5 million. And I know I have to work on getting to pucks quicker and getting stronger.”
In his short time back in Erie, the Otters braintrust already can see the change in Strome. According to general manager Dave Brown, the coaching staff has observed Strome working out diligently in the weight room after each game.
“I’ve noticed a huge difference in his approach,” Brown said. “We had a sit-down chat Monday at ice level after practice Monday and he told me: ‘If I can’t help significantly right now (in Arizona), I want to do it here.’”
It’s that glass-half-full attitude that has Team Canada officials optimistic about Strome’s ability to educate the younger players on what to expect at the world junior, which takes place in Toronto and Montreal in less than a month.
After posting a poor 1-2-1 record in the preliminary round of the 2016 tournament in Helsinki, Finland, Team Canada faced a brutal quarterfinal match-up against the hosts and ended up dropping a heartbreaking 6-5 decision, stripping Strome and his teammates of the opportunity of playing for any medal, no matter what the colour.
According to Hockey Canada officials, no one took Canada’s early exit more to heart than Strome, who was crushed by the loss to Finland. His raw emotion is one of the reasons he is expected to be a top candidate to be named captain for the 2017 tournament along with Coyotes’ Lawson Crouse, who would be the favourite to wear the ‘C’ in the unlikely event Arizona makes him available to play.
With training camp just two weeks away, Strome, 19, feels Team Canada has some “unfinished business.”
“I want to stress to the young guys how hard this tournament is. I want them to know every game is important — otherwise you might end up with a tougher match-up in the quarters and semis than there needs to be. I want them to understand that the entire country will be watching and, even though there is pressure, it’s a good thing.
“The tournament is in Canada. The fans are going to be wild. Being from the Toronto area, I’ll have the chance to play in front of lots of friends and family. It’s going to be great.
“It’s all there in front of us. But to be successful, we can not take anything for granted.”
In the end, Strome says he is a much more “mature” player than he was during his previous stint in Erie. Those words are music to the ears of Team Canada officials, who will be relying in so many ways on the kid who has totalled 240 points over his past two full OHL seasons.
OH BROTHER, HOCKEY ISN’T EASY
The roller-coaster ride Dylan Strome is on right now is not an unfamiliar one to the young centre.
Given what older brother Ryan has been through the past couple of seasons, Dylan knows all too well how fickle life in pro hockey can be.
The fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft by the New York Islanders, Ryan Strome, 23, had a breakout season in 2014-15, compiling 50 points. But he regressed last season, one that included just 28 NHL points, a stint in the American Hockey League and three games as a healthy scratch during the playoffs.
The 2016-17 campaign has been just as turbulent, with Ryan Strome having been forced to watch his team’s past two games in civvies heading into play Wednesday.
“(Ryan) thinks it sucks, obviously, but he says you have to be a good teammate no matter what,” Dylan Strome said. “That’s what he passed on to me when I was sent down to Erie.
“Here’s a guy who scored tons of points in junior (106 in 2010-11), had a great second year with the Islanders and now is having a hard time. It just goes to show that you can’t take anything for granted.”