TUCSON, Ariz. — Dylan Strome turned 21 on Wednesday, a rite of passage that ushered him into adulthood by most legal definitions.
How much longer the Arizona Coyotes must wait, or will wait for him to transform from prospect to NHL regular (if he does at all), is still unknown.
“Everybody is in such a rush these days to get guys into the NHL because there are so many young guys playing in the league and having success,” Tucson Roadrunners coach Mike Van Ryn said. “Everybody’s road, everybody’s curve is different and with Dylan you’ve got to wait. He’s a late bloomer. It sounds weird because he’s not a kid any more, but you’ve got to wait for Mother Nature a little bit.”
Strome has had little trouble adapting to every other level of hockey. He amassed 315 points in 159 games in his final three seasons with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, adding 21 points in 14 games to help Erie advance to the Memorial Cup Final.
He has 22 goals and 49 points in 43 games with Tucson, giving him the fifth-highest point-per-game average (1.14) among AHL players who have logged at least 20 games.
Leg strength, strength on the puck, the ability to make plays and think the game at NHL speed — these are the challenges Strome has yet to overcome at the highest level, where he has one goal and two points in 18 games.
“I’m trying to work as hard as I can here and do the little things that Mike has been talking about; trying to do them on a consistent basis,” Strome said. “Going into piles quicker, playing fast all the time. I do them some nights; some nights I go back to my old ways, and there are differences you have to learn. You have to adapt.”
Van Ryn, along with assistants John Slaney and Steve Potvin, is charged with helping Strome make those final adjustments. He is a coach whose duties are split between winning games to build a winning culture, and developing players the right way for the next level.
“At this level, Dylan guesses and he guesses right most of the time, which is hard because he knows he can get away with it,” Van Ryn said. “We’ve been trying to teach him that ‘yeah, you’re getting away with it here, but you’re not going to get away with it at the next level.’
“He’s been a guy that was always allowed just to be around pucks rather than forcing turnovers for teammates to go get. It’s been a learning curve and the older guys at this level play pretty hard on him. There’s that strength factor that has been an issue and it’s one he knows he needs to work on so he spends extra days and sometimes days off in the gym. There are probably games where he’s tired but that’s because we’re worried about the big picture with him. Rather than him getting two points every night, it’s about getting points playing the right way.”
Van Ryn has seen progress in key areas, particularly on defense.
“Most guys who have been prolific scorers, they cheat everywhere,” Van Ryn said. “He might cheat a little in the offensive zone but he doesn’t cheat in the defensive zone. He’s a guy that takes pride in being positionally sound in his defensive zone. That gets him a step closer and he’s a lot closer than what a lot of people in the hockey world think.”
Strome has worked diligently to increase and maintain his strength, but he said that it is harder to maintain that strength over the course of the season when the team is practicing and playing so much.
“I think there’s a summer strength and an in-season strength, but this is the best season I have had of working out postgame and staying as strong as I was in the summer,” he said. “I feel refreshed still and I’ll need that because hopefully we’ll be playing for a lot longer.”
Entering Friday’s game, Tucson is in first place in the Pacific Division with a 30-17-4-1 record and a .625 winning percentage that ranks second in the Western Conference and seventh in the AHL.
“It’s fun going out and expecting to win every night,” Strome said. “We’ve gone through this much of the year being a top team. We might as well do it for the rest of the year, and in the playoffs.”
Roadrunner general manager Steve Sullivan has no idea whether there will be more call-ups over the final 16 games of the Coyotes’ season. Injuries create opportunity, but there also may be value in rewarding Strome and wing Nick Merkley for their elite production, and there may be equal value in continuity. Tucson is in a playoff push where every game counts. Strome is playing in many situations he might not with the NHL club.
Once the AHL playoffs end and 2018 training camp rolls around, all eyes will be on Strome again, wondering if he can fill the organization’s longstanding need for an elite, point-producing centerman.
“From the years I’ve been around the game, he just thinks the game at a completely different level,” Van Ryn said. “Those guys usually figure out a way. They just need the reps and they need to find a way to get themselves into the lineup to get those reps.
“He’s got a lot of the boxes checked off and he’s going to find ways to get stronger and get quicker. That just takes time; days in the gym and summers in the gym. He’s working hard. It’s going to come together for this kid. “