When the lottery commenced ahead of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Chicago Blackhawks had a 3.0% chance to select within the top three picks. Fortune seemed on Chicago’s side when they, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers were announced to be the teams to selected in the top three. The Hawks ultimately landed the third pick, and with the first two selections deemed obvious, that of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, there were a list of suitors for then General Manager Stan Bowman to select from.
Now, if you were following the draft closely, or want to already claim, “Hey, how could they not take Trevor Zegras at No. 3?”, a center from the Saskatoon Blades named Kirby Dach was easily slated in the top five on many NHL drafts boards. As for myself, I was thrilled with the selection of Dach. What did the Hawks need at the time? A power forward, one with hands, speed and skill, but with the strength to get to the net, wreak some havoc and be a dominant force on the ice. I do not blame Bowman for selecting Dach at third overall that June. It was the right choice at the time. It has been what has transpired since then that has been troubling, and it is anyone guess as to how Dach’s career pans out from here.
Dach is 21 years young, that’s it. In many ways, it is unfair to judge him as a hockey player, but recently, his play has received a great deal of criticism. Fair criticism or not, this year’s version of Dach is that of someone who plays timid, unsure of himself, unsure of his role on the team and someone who is lacking in confidence. Now, it is not easy for this young man. He came into a situation with a team attempting, against all odds, for a quick return to glory, while trying to squeeze every last ounce of quality play from Blackhawks legends Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. For many fans, the expectation is that Dach would adapt quickly, be a sure-fire fixture, put up points and get the team right back in contention. Tough expectations for a developing teenager who is trying to learn the pro game.
What has been lost on the Hawks in all of this is his development. The question that remains, and may remain for some time, is what kind of NHL hockey player is Dach meant to and going to be. Chicago thrust him into a center role, an easier role for him to play as a junior hockey player in the WHL. Physically, Dach could do it all in the WHL with size and speed. Perhaps learning the critical elements of the center ice position at the pro game was something he never had to focus on. Dach is a great north-south skater, but thus far in the 2021–22 season, in 41 games played and over 400 face-offs taken, he is winning draws at a 34% clip, which in today’s NHL is simply inadequate. His defensive zone play has marginally improved, but currently, his offensive production is next to nothing. In the month of January, with over 19 minutes of ice time per game, Dach has one goal and that is his lone point in 2022. For a third overall pick in his third season with the club, that is indeed troubling.
Yet, if you want to point the finger, do not point it at young Kirby. When you compartmentalize and look at his brief stint as a Blackhawk, Dach has been asked to be and to do too much. Throwing a young kind into a role as a center, giving him a ton of responsibility early, asking him to come back early from wrist surgery last season, and putting the semi-retooling-back-to-winning ways on his shoulders realistically is an absurd proposition, and it does not seem to be getting any better or easier for him.
It was astonishing in Friday night’s contest against the Colorado Avalanche to see a struggling Dach begin the first minute of the third period killing a penalty while down 2–0 against a mighty Avs power play. It was heartbreaking to watch him try to figure out positioning while the Avs calmly moved the puck and took a 3–0 lead. It has become evidently clear that Dach has the kind of “I will do anything to win” attitude, and while I certainly compliment his heart, the Hawks have been abusing his courage without for a second considering what may be best for his development.
When Dach was a rookie in the 2019–20 season, he spent a mere three games with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL on a conditioning assignment, with no points and a -1 rating before Bowman and company deemed him ready to make the big jump to the NHL. In 64 games with the Hawks, he showed flashes of a bright future, with eight goals and 23 points in a pandemic-shortened season. He then complimented that with six points in nine games in the Edmonton bubble.
Then came the following January that changed everything. With the NHL getting its arms around how to begin the season amidst the pandemic, Dach was asked to represent his country and captain Canada in the 2021 World Junior Championships. What could have been an incredible experience and confidence booster for Dach to lead his country to gold ended early in despair with a broken wrist in a pre-tournament exhibition contest against Russia.
Many anticipated Dach to have a major impact in the tournament and arrive for the beginning of the NHL season set to be the Hawks’ second-line center. Instead, Dach’s injury required surgery, which at the time was said to be a 4–5-month recovery process. Now, only those that work inside the Hawks’ organization know where it truly went from here, but though it was originally assumed that Dach would be out for the season, he returned three months after surgery for his season debut against the Nashville Predators on March 27, 2021, where he played over 20 minutes. Twenty minutes. There was no rehab assignment, and no mention even of him playing a few games in the IceHogs’ shortened season. He was simply tossed off a boat into shark-infested waters to see if he could swim his way out of it. Desperate to make the make the playoffs, the 20-year-old Dach was inserted right back in the face-off dot coming off a broken wrist.
Dach struggled through the spring of 2021, notching two goals in 18 games. Fast forward to training camp 2021 ahead of this season, both Bowman and then-head coach Jeremy Colliton put him right back where they think he belonged and expected excellence of him. Watching Dach get decimated in the face-off circle during practice by Toews, to which many fans signaled, “the captain is back,” but when you watch it now, you see a young man four months shy of his 21st birthday completely out of his league in a position that may not be right for him.
Toews vs. Dach. This one is all Toews. pic.twitter.com/8RDCXGyz4U
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) September 29, 2021
So Colliton gets fired, Derek King is appointed interim head coach and Dach has to hit the reset button yet again. It has become clear that Dach’s actual development has become secondary to the idea that the Hawks simply hope he will be able to figure it out on his own. And what exactly is that role? We have no idea what kind of hockey player Dach is meant to become, how high his ceiling can be or what is ahead in his career. But, tossing him in every area of hockey strategy, whether that be as a center, on the power play, on the penalty kill or whatever, is only setting this kid up for failure. The Hawks need to either simplify his game, make him a winger and give him less to think about or, if he is to become a multifaceted, five-tool player, then he needs to work on those things at a lower professional level in Rockford. The latter simply will not happen.
The nay-sayers out there that feel Dach is a candidate to be moved before the trade deadline are not considering two things. One is that it is way too early to give up on him. He still is really young and physically he can still develop. The Hawks have learned the hard way not to mail it in on promising prospects. Just ask Ryan Hartman and Teuvo Teravainen. Secondly, there will not be a taker for Dach who is willing to give up quality assets or draft picks to have Dach sit in the press box during a Cup run. As of right now, Dach probably would not dress for a Cup-contending team.
Dach will be a restricted free agent this summer, and odds are he will sign a two- or three-year bridge deal with the Blackhawks that may not be north of $2 million per season. The Hawks have a lot of leverage with his rights, and he will not be breaking the bank ahead of the 2022–23 season.
Which makes this all the more frustrating. Heading into his second contract, there are many, myself included, that by now would have viewed Dach as a staple of the Hawks’ future and not a mystery, wondering what may become of his playing career. It is not his fault; not in the least. He is a victim of circumstance, both due to an untimely injury and an organization so concerned with selling jerseys and trying to patch up a roster in the failing hope that they can get back in the race that his long-term path has been downright ignored.
No, we are not at doomsday yet and Dach’s NHL career could still very well have a happy ending, but if the Hawks care about his longevity, confidence and future, they need to commit to working with him regardless of what the current optics look like from a sales and marketing standpoint. He needs to be put in positions to succeed, as opposed to the “Hey, go figure it out” model he is currently trying to navigate.
Dach has the talent and the heart, and all rooting for him. Hopefully his employers, this “once proud” franchise, will start rooting for him, too.