Shortly following the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman got together to record their 31 Thoughts podcast about what they had just seen unfold. At one point in the podcast, the conversation pivoted towards the Vancouver Canucks’ decision to draft Quinn Hughes at No. 7 over some of the other talented defensemen on the board, all of whom are bigger than the 5’10”, 175-pound Hughes is but aren’t quite as fast or smooth of a skater as him.
This turned into a discussion of how the NHL is by and large becoming a league that is first and foremost about skating. To hammer that theme home, they brought up a quote that former NHL general manager Brian Burke had said on Sportsnet’s live draft panel (you can hear it at the 48:30 mark of this recording), after being asked how the draft process had changed from 10 years ago to now. Emphasis ours:
Well, we have rules at the table, with the scouts, we have rules. So these would be the rules in 2008: Always the best available athlete. Skating, skills, needs to improve** -- we can improve your skating if it’s not great. Focus on what they can be, not what they are. Focus on North Americans in the bottom-6 and the bottom pair, we don’t want Europeans doing the blue-collar work. Size carries a premium, no variance to the list.
Now fast-forward 10 years. And this would be the list, it would be a little bit different. Focus on skating, skating, skating. The league has changed.
Let’s set aside the antiquated comment about not using European players at the bottom of your lineup, and instead focus on the point at hand. No longer, Burke alleges, do teams prefer to make bets on guys who might just be able to put it together if the skating isn’t quite there. The NHL is faster than it’s ever been, and that’s probably not going to change any time soon. Skating shines through, first and foremost, and if you don’t have it, there’s a pretty good chance that whatever you’ve got going on elsewhere in terms of size and skill isn’t going to matter.
Chances are, Brian Burke was not explicitly thinking of Flyers 2017 fourth-round pick Matthew Strome when he said that. (Though, given that he was still in the Flames’ front office when Strome was drafted, who knows?) But it’s tough to think of a better way than that to summarize the dilemma the Flyers face with Strome, a 6’3”, 200-pound winger with outstanding puck skills who skates at a level that can barely be considered functional for a full-time hockey player.
No. 22: Matthew Strome
Age: 19 (1/6/1999)
Size: 6’3”, 201 (via)
Acquired Via: 2017 NHL Draft — Round 4, Pick 106
2017-18 League/Team/Statistics: Hamilton (OHL) - 37 G, 31 A in 65 GP
Ranking in BSH Winter 2018 25 Under 25: 23
Nevertheless, we’ll start with the obvious positives for the youngest Strome. Few can deny that he has a nose for the net and an ability to put up points. On what was a pretty stacked Hamilton Bulldogs team this past season, Strome took a modest step forward in production, posting 68 points (37 goals, 31 assists) after tallying 62 (34 goals, 28 assists) in his draft season. The 37 goals were tied for 13th overall in the OHL, and seventh among all players who were under 19 when the season began.
One thing that is encouraging for Strome’s 2017-18 season is that he showed clear improvement in getting to the dirty areas in front of the net to create chances for himself. The great website prospect-stats.com tracks low, medium, and high-danger scoring chances for OHL players, based on shot location (here are the zones that they use to determine “danger”), and calculates expected goals based on the frequencies of those types of shots. It’s an inexact science, but one that gives a decent high-level look at what players are doing with their shots on net.
By those measures, Strome graded out quite well this past year. Strome ranked ninth among all OHL skaters (and sixth among under-19 skaters) in total expected goals. And very few players were able to get to the front of the net quite like Strome was — only two OHL players, both over 19, had more “high-danger shots” than Strome did last season. Granted, some credit here should be given to what was a stacked Bulldogs team that made it to the Memorial Cup last season, as it’s easier to create space for yourself when the opposing team has so many players to worry about. But regardless, the real estate in front of the net is the hardest to buy, and Strome was there plenty last season.
Getting to the net is part of the battle, but Strome also has shown good hands and scoring touch in front to finish these plays off. His goals this past season come in all sorts of ways — from tap-ins to dekes around the defense to snipes, with even a lacrosse-style goal from behind the net mixed in there for good measure. And while he’s a goal-scorer first and foremost, he’s also able to sell the threat of a shot to set up to his teammates. Few observers will question Strome’s ability on the puck and in the offensive zone, and that ability — along with ideal size for the position — is why he’s an intriguing prospect as a potential goal-scoring winger. Most of the tools that you look for are there.
Of course, one of those tools is conspicuously absent, and that brings us back to the point that every conversation around Strome reaches eventually: will the skating ever get there?
Strome gets around the ice with a stride that can be rather charitably described as “choppy”, and it’s a legitimate weakness for him even just by the standards of the OHL, let alone by those that a potential NHL prospect is held to. From the perspective of “can he become an NHLer?”, everything that he does is looked at through the prism of whether his skating is improving. It’s why a player with his offensive instincts and abilities is something of a long shot to be an NHL contributor at this point in his career.
This is a secret to no one, and everyone around him is working with him to help improve. At both of his development camps with the Flyers, he has been tailed continuously by a skating coach. He has worked with Flyers skating coach Slava Kouznetsov, and it was noted last month at development camp that he’ll be getting instruction this summer from renowned Canadian skating coach (and former Olympic figure skater) Barb Underhill.
Everyone is in agreement that there’s still plenty of work to be done here, but most seem to believe there’s been at least some improvement since he was selected by the Flyers in June of 2017. Ron Hextall said in his July 1 media availability that Strome “had a real good year” and has “made some progress for sure” in skating. Strome himself talked at development camp about how much he worked on it this past season, and believes that he’s improved and feels himself getting to pucks quicker than before.
If you can sense some optimism in the room about Strome improving enough here, it’s likely because Flyers fans recently saw another winger that the team took late in the draft overcome a skating flaw. Oskar Lindblom, generally seen as someone with top-two-round talent, dropped to the fifth round in the 2014 draft primarily because of concerns with his speed and skating. After working at it for a while, things seemed to click for him somewhere around his third post-draft season, at which point he immediately became one of the best players in the SHL. Now, he’s expected to be an NHLer moving forward and is another exciting part of this team’s future. And that inspires some optimism — fans who have seen a player work through a flaw that they now deem fixable can hold out hope that another player can and will do the same.
Still, no two players and situations are quite the same, and one player under the Flyers’ tutelage fixing his skating certainly doesn’t guarantee anything for Strome, who frankly has more work to do than Lindblom did. The fact that everyone knows that this is Strome’s flaw means some can see the glass here as half-full: everyone knows what needs to be fixed, and it’s something that can be fixed, and he’s already scoring points at a healthy level even despite that obvious flaw. Of course, the glass half-empty viewpoint also has a lot of validity: everyone knows this is what he needs to work on, he works on it non-stop, and he still isn’t near where he needs to be.
As exciting as the skill set may otherwise be, if the skating never really takes a big step up from where it is now, it’s tough to see Strome topping out as much more than a good AHL forward. The sheer difference in skill between him and his peers is enough for him to get by on now, but it won’t be as he eventually reaches the pro level. The game is too fast, and too much of it is played in transition, for a guy who outright cannot keep up to really stick. His size, scoring, and instincts probably give him something of a floor at the AHL level, particularly because it’s easy to see him being a productive player on the power play where skating isn’t quite as much of a priority, but as the players keep getting faster he’s going to keep finding it tougher to hang.
But what if the skating does come around? How good does it need to get for him to have a chance? Hextall weighed in on the topic not long ago, emphasis ours:
“Matthew Strome is a pretty good example,” Hextall said last week. “With Matthew, skating is his weakness. He’s got one flaw, everything else is pretty good. So, you look at Matthew and if he can just improve it — he’s never probably going to be a great skater, but if we can just ramp him up two levels, he’s got a real good chance at playing in the National Hockey League.”
Two levels. What exactly that means is something that only Hextall truly knows, but the team seems to have a benchmark in mind here. They know that things are never going to be perfect here, and chances are, Strome is going to be a guy whose success will probably depend to an extent on his linemates if he ever makes it to hockey’s biggest stage.
But the upside here is evident. A winger with plus vision, a good shot, and strong net-front presence is a player who can play on any team if he can even sort of stay with the pace of the game. He may never get to that point, and “what he is”, as Brian Burke referred to, isn’t something that the Flyers can count on just yet. But “what he can be”? That’s something they can be excited about. The Flyers know that, which is why they drafted him and then signed him to an entry-level contract last March. That ensures that he’ll be with the organization until at least the summer of 2022. Everyone knows what they’ll be working on until then.
** The words at that point — around “skills, needs to improve” — were a bit drowned out by crowd noise, so I am not 100 percent certain if that is exactly what was said there. The rest of the quote is accurate, including all bolded portions.
How We Voted For Matthew Strome
How We Voted At No. 22
|German Rubtsov||Samuel Morin||Isaac Ratcliffe||Linus Hogberg||Maksim Sushko||David Bernhardt||Mark Friedman||Noah Cates||Danick Martel||Carsen Twarynski||Danick Martel||Pascal Laberge||Noah Cates||Nicolas Aube-Kubel||Anthony Stolarz|
How The Community Voted For Matthew Strome
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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2018 Top 25 Under 25: