By JD Lagrange – Hope were high for Kirby Dach when the Chicago Blackhawks made him the third overall selection of the 2019 NHL Draft. He was hampered by injuries though, including a broken wrist that limited the young forward to just 18 games in the 2020-21 campaign.
Here are just a few scouting reports from that Draft, describing what scouts saw in the young centerman:
- A two-way center with exceptional hockey sense. Dach is also a highly-skilled playmaker who sees openings that most players don’t. Despite his large stature, he is surprisingly shifty and equipped with fine hands and creativity, EliteProspects.com 2019
- The capability to bury the shoulder, drive to the net, and find twine with two or three defenders dangling off of him is there, EPrinkside.com 2019
- He’s a very coordinated kid with his wrists and can make unique dangles given his length and skill-level, Hockeyprospect.com 2019
- Displaying incredible vision and passing ability, he works well in tight around the net with very soft hands, Future Considerations 2019
- Dach is a general on the ice. He has the ability to slow the game down and take it over, McKeen’s Hockey 2019
- Great combination of size, strength and puck skills … ‘offence first’ mentality … soft hands… good puck pursuit … quick stick, ISS Hockey 2017
Then on July 7th, 2022, at the NHL Draft which was held at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canadiens’ rookie GM Kent Hughes stole the show. First, he shocked most people in the hockey world including Habs’ fans when he passed on Shane Wright (the popular pick) to select Juraj Slafkovsky. Then, Gary Bettman got the attention of the crowd, first announcing the trade of Alexander Romanov – a fan favourite – to the New York Islanders, for their first round pick. Bettman (or rather Hughes through Bettman) wasn’t done when he announced that the Canadiens had flipped that pick to Chicago to get 21 year-old Dach.
“I was actually on my way into the rink to go skate,” Dach told reporters after the trade was announced. “So it’s a bit shocking but I’m excited to be in Montreal. It’s a great city. I love to play there. I can’t wait to have the fans on my side cheering us on.”
While Dach described his time in Chicago as “full of ups and downs,” he said his first three seasons in the NHL have provided a lot of lessons, too.
“I was a young guy coming into kind of an older locker room and was able to learn quite a lot about the pro lifestyle and what it really takes to play in this league and be a good player at a consistent level each and every night,” he said. “And I definitely take those qualities with me and try and improve upon myself each and every day.”
So just in the first half of the first round, the Canadiens had picked a big winger in Slafkovsky and had gotten bigger at center, a position of need and some fans’ biggest reason for wanting to draft Wright.
Listed at 6-foot 4-inches, 212 lbs, the pride of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta is having the best start of the season of his young NHL career. It didn’t take long for him to get on the fans’ good side, registering an assist in his very first game against arch rivals Toronto in a 4-3 win.
But the real story has been when head coach Martin St-Louis decided to try him on right wing, on the top line with Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. Here’s what the three young players have done since October 29th, a 10 games stretch:
On the season, Dach is fourth amongst forwards on the team in ice time, behind only Suzuki, Caufield and Sean Monahan. Since October 29th, he has surpassed Monahan in ice time and only trails his two linemates in that category. But in his last four games, he has averaged 20:28 of ice time.
It’s just one man’s observations here, but there are a few key elements to Dach’s game so far this season that really stand out. Some of it was stuff that was expected from him from his pre-draft scouting reports, but some of it we are just starting to discover, particularly at the NHL level.
We know that due to the fact that the Canadiens don’t have true defense quarterbacks for their power play, coach St-Louis often goes with five forwards when his team is on the man advantage. Dach is, in my opinion, perhaps the most effective forward at the point on the power play this season. He sees the ice well, makes the right decisions and rarely forces plays that aren’t there. And that’s particularly important when you’re the last man between your opponent and your goalie.
From past seasons watching him in Chicago, he reminded me a bit of Josh Anderson when he had the puck. He was a bit too easily pushed off the puck for someone with such a big body. Likely due to maturity and growing into his body, he wins a lot of puck battles in the corners now. He is also much improved at protecting the puck, keeping it away from defensemen’s long sticks, and stays on his feet a lot more.
One aspect of his game that I wasn’t necessarily expecting is how good he is at stripping the puck from his opponents. In fact, he is second to only Monahan for takeaways on the team, tied with Kaiden Guhle and Johnathan Kovacevic. That long stick and reach is most likely helping, but his ability to put himself in good position is also a key factor.
We knew that Dach was a quality skater. But his speed is deceiving to his opponent, perhaps because you don’t see many guys his size who can motor like that. That foot speed and size combination forces the defenders to respect him and give him a bit more room so that they don’t get burn with his shiftiness, speed and size.
I’ve touched on this when talking about the power play, but his vision on the ice is excellent. He sees plays develop and has a natural ability of finding passing lanes, avoiding the passes being intercepted. In that aspect, he reminds me of Caufield. You expect that from Suzuki, but seeing such great passes from both these guys on such a regular basis is somewhat surprising.
One would have to be smarter than yours truly to affirm if Dach’s breakthrough is due to the fact that he’s playing wing, if it’s due to the chemistry that he has developed with his two linemates, or it’s about the quality ice time he’s getting, the coaching style of St-Louis giving his players freedom offensively, or if it has more to do with him reaching a level of maturity and confidence resulting in him “getting it”. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s a combination of all above. Whatever it is, the Canadiens and their fans certainly aren’t complaining.
As we’ve covered in a recent article on player development, Kent Hughes said that he still sees Dach as a center in the mid to long term. But right now, finding his Mojo on the top line’s right wing is not a bad thing at all. The Canadiens do have the luxury of having Monahan and Dvorak, two studs on faceoffs up the middle.
When it boils down to it, the Canadiens traded from a position of strength and depth (left defense) to address a position of weakness (center) while adding size, a need identified by the Gorton/Hughes duo. You now look at the way Kaiden Guhle is playing, the Canadiens certainly don’t miss Romanov. And they still have Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj on that side of the defense as young players, with veterans Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson as well.
So not only aren’t the Canadiens missing Romy, adding Kirby Dach is turning out to be a potential homerun by a rookie GM. Is it luck? Is it the beginning of a trend? Time will tell but that one sure is looking good right now, isn’t it?
- Kent Hughes Set On Player Development by JD Lagrange
- NHL Pace Catching Up With Young Habs by JD Lagrange
- And Now For the Hard Part by Bob Trask