Since I began covering prospects, I have never been asked more often about a player(s) than I have about Dylan Strome and Mitchell Marner.
"If you’re on the clock at 5 and both Strome and Marner are avaiulable, who’s the better pick?"
"Any broad preference on Strome or Marner?"
"Is there a gap between Marner and Strome?"
"Marner or Strome are 4-5?"
"Who would you take, Strome or Marner, and why?"
"Scott, if both Strome/Marner were available when the Leafs pick, which one would you choose?"
"If you had the choice to pick Marner or Strome, who are you taking?"
"Curious Scott. If you’re the Leafs and can draft either Strome or Marner, who would you take… and any particular reason why?"
You get the point.
As the Leafs plummeted in the standings and it became increasingly clear that they’d pick between selections No. 4-6 in this June’s draft, these questions picked up. I the get them almost daily, sometimes multiple times, and I consistently give the same answer.
Naturally, in each of my 2015 top 60 draft rankings with McKeen’s I have had Strome and Marner ranked closely, fourth and fifth overall respectively.
When an article circulated this week explain why Strome would be a "bust" (I would rather not link it, but you can find it on Twitter and elsewhere), I felt compelled to delve into the debate surrounding the two highly touted forwards with more than a few tweets.
Let’s start with Strome. The aforementioned article/blog touted Strome as a prime candidate to be this year’s bust for two primary reasons. First, it touched on Strome’s below average skating. Second, it pointed to the McDavid effect (as in, because Strome plays behind McDavid, his competition is weaker, inflating his offensive output).
Both of these ‘evaluations’ are flawed in that it is clear, in watching Strome, a 6'3" centre with Erie, that in spite of a sluggish stride, he dominates in other ways. He dominates with elite vision, good stickhandling, and an uncanny ability to slow down the game and protect the puck. Last night, John Tavares, a sluggish skater in his junior days and average skater now, scored an overtime winner to defeat the Leafs. How did he do it? He slowed down the game in open ice, protected the puck well and used his strong stickhandling to find his way through a defender and finish around Jonathan Bernier. He’s the NHL’s leading scorer, and he’s incredibly effective because of those tools. So are Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, and Eric Staal, three average skaters.
While playing with McDavid has a beneficial effect on every Erie player, and matchups in the OHL have a more pronounced effect on production than in the NHL due to lack of depth on opposing bluelines, it doesn’t pass the sniff test with Strome either.
Not only has McDavid missed considerable time due to injury and this year’s World Juniors, but Strome has also thrived in tougher matchups in his absence, with 29 points in 19 games sans-McDavid.
And while Strome’s linemates, Nick Baptiste (Buffalo, 3rd round, 2013) and DeBrincat, are no slouches, he was without Baptiste to start the year prior to a trade from Sudbury.
On the flip side, Marner’s use with Max Domi (Arizona, 1st round, 2013) and Christian Dvorak (Arizona, 2nd round, 2014) on a dynamic top line in London results in consistent matching against opposition’s top pairings. This, though, is counterbalanced by the extremely high quality of Marner's linemates. In fact, the number of Marner's points Dvorak (48%) and Domi (29%) have contributed on far exceeds any one player's input into Strome's production, with DeBrincat (22%) Baptiste (17%) leading the way.
Ultimately, I have and have had Strome ranked slightly ahead of Marner because of the impact of the centre in today’s NHL. This isn’t to say Marner, who is listed as a 5’10" centre can’t be an effective centre at the next level. There are several centres in the NHL, who, at that height, are effective or even dominant. Particularly this year with the emergence of a centre like Tyler Johnson, currently the NHL’s seventh leading scorer.
It’s more a matter of certainty and the tools available to each player. Marner has, in recent games, played more on the wing than at centre and has dominated. And it’s not a matter of sizing either. I have towering forwards like Zacha, Crouse and Roy ranked extremely low because they lack elite offensive upside in a game trending towards the smaller, skilled forward. In recent drafts, I have also stressed skill in my rankings and their corresponding evaluations. Still, if a centre, like Strome, has the elite tools and the size to compliment it, it’s an enticing package.
My scouting reports of the two players:
Dylan Strome, Erie Otters:
Patient with the puck, likes to stop up off the rush and wait for his teammates to get open .. always has his head up and creates for offence for others as well as anyone in the draft, second only to his teammate, Connor McDavid .. doesn’t appear to skate hard or explosively but hangs onto the puck to open up space for others .. high base in his stride limits his explosiveness .. strong positional play allows him to break up passes and anticipate in all three zones .. an elusive release surprises goalies, explodes off of his stick .. follows his shots to the net and frequently gets second opportunities .. one of the better forwards in the defensive zone at the top end of the draft .. excellent stick handler, in tight and when protecting the puck .. passes extremely accurately off of his backhand .. cerebral player with an elite ability to hang onto the puck and control the pace.
Mitch Marner, London Knights:
Slick hands and elite footwork help Marner evade contact in tight .. calm playmaker, one of the most patient players in the class with the puck .. despite a slender appearance on the ice, Marner consistently outsmarts his opponents to beat them .. anticipates the play well which creates spacing when he receives the puck off the rush .. has a tendency to get caught running around in his own zone on a poor defensive team in London .. skates hard and uses his stick to win puck battles .. hard on the backcheck and he comes deep in the defensive zpone to retrieve pucks .. loves to find teammates on his backhand .. played the wing on the powerplay and the majority of the year on a dominant line with Max Domi .. effective on the wing or at centre due to his creativity.
Have any questions about the 2015 NHL Draft and its top prospects? Leave it in the comments or shoot me a tweet @scottcwheeler.