Already facing the impossible task of filling the offensive void left by Connor McDavid, the Erie Otters might also have to get used to life without scoring star Dylan Strome.
McDavid produced one of the best seasons in Ontario Hockey League history last year. The star won't be back in Erie this season after being selected first overall in June's NHL draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
While McDavid is in Alberta preparing for his first professional season, the Otters are facing the possibility of losing Strome, who led the OHL in scoring last season.
"There's no way you could ever replace a guy like Connor," Erie head coach Kris Knoblauch said. "And to possibly be losing Dylan on top of that, it would be a huge blow to our team."
McDavid had video-game-like statistics last year with the Otters, scoring 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 games after missing time due to the world junior championship and a hand injury.
His excellence earned him the OHL's most outstanding player award and the league's playoff MVP. The 18-year-old fell just short on the road to the Memorial Cup when Erie was eliminated by eventual Canadian Hockey League champion Oshawa in the OHL final.
McDavid combined with Strome for a one-two punch that was tough for any team to stop. Strome won the league scoring title after a six-point performance in the last game of regular season gave him 45 goals and 84 assists in 68 games.
His impressive season caught the eye of the Arizona Coyotes, who drafted Strome two spots after McDavid at No. 3.
The possibility that Strome makes the Coyotes' roster, however, isn't making it tough on Knoblauch's lineup plans ahead of Thursday night, when the Otters open their season in Windsor against the Spitfires.
"As a coach you want the best players and we're not changing our roster to whether Dylan comes back or not," Knoblauch said.
"As coaches and management we're looking to keep the best talented players and we do have an idea of how we're going to play if we have Dylan and how our team will look otherwise. Right now we're just looking to form our team and keep the best players."
One of those players is defenceman Travis Dermott, who will be back for a third season. After an impressive sophomore season with Erie, where he had 45 points in 61 games, the Maple Leafs drafted the Newmarket, Ont., native 34th overall in June.
With big turnover on the Otters blue line, including three overage defencemen leaving, Knoblauch is looking to Dermott and Darren Raddysh to handle a lot of the responsibilities.
"What separates (Dermott) from a lot of defencemen is he's very dynamic, very explosive," Knoblauch said. "And I think one of the things that he does really well is how well he breaks the puck out of his zone. Whether he can make a great first pass or carry it out or he's just able to read the pressure and make a good decisions."
Should Strome not return from Arizona's camp, Erie will turn to a pair of 17-year-olds wingers, Kyle Maksimovich and Taylor Raddysh, to create offence.
The Otters were just a three wins away from competing for Canada's top junior prize at the Memorial Cup. Knoblauch is remaining optimistic that even without McDavid or possibly Strome, that this year's team can go far in the post-season.
"I don't know if there's a certain recipe to do it but I like the players that we have returning and who we feel we can compete with anybody in the league, but do have a lot of things we need to work on and I guess time will tell to see how competitive we are."
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