Kirby Dach hasn’t exactly panned out like many Chicago Blackhawks fans hoped he would when the team drafted him third overall in 2019. Through 43 games this season, he has been rather underwhelming for the Blackhawks, to say the least. He has six goals and nine assists with a minus-5 rating, not helping a team that has struggled offensively.
While there is room for concern with Dach’s performance, fans shouldn’t panic. Although it might seem like Dach has a long way to reach his third-overall potential, he is just 21 and has a long career ahead of him.
After the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers drafted Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko first and second overall, respectively, in the 2019 NHL Draft, the Blackhawks had a glaring question on their hands: who to pick at third? Many viewed Hughes and Kakko as locks for the first two picks, but there were a number of directions Chicago could’ve gone when it came to the third-overall selection.
The Blackhawks settled on Dach, who had come off an impressive 73-point season with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades in 2018-19. There were questions on whether he would make the team that offseason. However, he was ultimately thrown into the fire and made his NHL debut back on Oct. 20, 2019, a 5-3 loss to the Washington Capitals. Back then, Dach was still a teenager, yet the stakes were high for him. As a potential No. 1 center, he was arguably the highest prospect Chicago had seen in years.
While not Calder Trophy-worthy, Dach looked solid during his first NHL season, putting up 23 points in 64 games before playing the best hockey of his professional career in that year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Heading into his sophomore season, though, he suffered a wrist injury while playing for Team Canada in the 2021 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. The injury delayed Dach’s start to the 2020-21 season, sitting out the first two and a half months before making his debut in late March.
Finding His Way
Though Dach’s already in his third NHL season, this year is his first full one, as the pandemic and his injury wreaked havoc in his first two seasons. While those aren’t excuses for his development, he has faced a number of challenges many young players don’t face, especially so early in their careers.
This season, Dach hasn’t looked bad, but he has struggled. He hasn’t exactly found a consistent scoring touch like that of other 2019 first-round picks including Hughes and Trevor Zegras, who the Anaheim Ducks selected ninth overall. While Dach has always been more of a set-up man, he’s significantly lacked offense. His 33.8 faceoff-winning percentage is also a glaring reason for concern. For a projected top-two center, that’s not going to cut it.
Many fans are upset with Dach’s growth and rightfully so. It is always tough to see a young player go through ups and downs, especially one with so much potential. Although there are areas of his game where he needs to step up, though, there shouldn’t be reason for panic.
One asset Dach can continue using to his advantage moving forward is his size. At 6-foot-4 and 198 pounds, his size is perfect for his role. Furthermore, even as he’s struggled offensively, he’s still shown he’s capable of playing a solid two-way game and has looked good at times on the forecheck.
The biggest thing fans ultimately need to remember with Dach is that he’s still finding his way as a player. Between playing in the No. 1 spot earlier this season with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane to the No. 2 spot with Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev more recently, Dach hasn’t exactly found a consistent spot to flourish in Chicago. He’s also had to adapt to two distinct coaching systems between former head coach Jeremy Colliton and that of current interim head coach Derek King.
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At this point, it’s safe to say the Blackhawks probably rushed Dach a little too quickly into the show, which is exactly the opposite of how the team is handling 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel. With that said, he still has much promise.
Dach might never be a point-per-game player many fans were hoping he’d be when Chicago drafted him. However, that’s OK.
While he needs to elevate his offense, his defensive game has been solid. Furthermore, Chicago fans need to take a step back and remember that while it may seem easy to judge Dach based on his third-overall status, every player takes a little longer to develop and adjust to the NHL.
A good comparable to Dach and his growth is Nashville Predators’ center Ryan Johansen, who is 6-foot-3, 218 pounds and a reliable two-way player. The Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Johansen fourth overall in 2010 before he made his NHL debut in 2011-12. That season, he posted 21 points in 67 games, before recording just 12 points in 40 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. In 2013-14, Johansen recorded 63 points in all 82 games with Columbus.
Although it may seem like a stretch to say Dach record 60-plus points next season while staying fully healthy, I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question he grows offensively and reaches the 50-point plateau with some level of consistency. Chicago lacks a true No. 1 center and while it might seem easy to stick Dach in that spot because of his potential, it might be best for his growth to keep him in the middle six where there’s a little less pressure.
Clearly, the fan pressure has been getting to Dach lately. Last weekend, he confirmed he had deleted his Twitter and Instagram accounts to block out external noise. As someone who seems to have a tremendous work ethic, hopefully small steps like these can help him regain confidence and relax a little more. Instead of solely focusing on the negatives, Chicago fans should take a step back and appreciate what Dach has been able to accomplish in his first few years, not what he hasn’t.
Putting It in Perspective
The Blackhawks might be looking to rebuild. Fans don’t know what that’ll look like just yet, and Dach may or may not be a part of the team’s long-term future. However, everyone should want him to succeed.
Remember, there were a number of directions Chicago could have gone at third overall. It might be easy to look back and see two players in that year’s top-10, Zegras and Detroit Red Wings’ defenseman Moritz Seider, flourish and be a part of this year’s Calder Trophy conversation.
Despite their efforts, however, player development is key for adjusting to the NHL. We don’t completely know whether either player would’ve automatically had the same level of success in Chicago. Another player the Blackhawks could have taken at third overall, Colorado Avalanche defenseman and 2019 fourth-overall pick Bowen Byram, recently stepped away from the team due to concussion issues. All that to say, there’s no way of knowing what that year’s class could have looked like nearly three years later.
As someone who has followed Dach closely since his first game, it has been tough to see him face growing pains, especially given how promising he looked in the 2020 NHL Playoffs. However, I also want Dach to succeed and do what’s best for him, whether that’s improving in certain areas of his game or continuing to capitalize on his bright spots.
I’d love to see Dach step up his offense and be a key part of Chicago’s future. He may do just that, or he may turn into a reliable two-way, middle-six center. Either way, fans need to remember that at just 21 years old, Dach has plenty of time to improve and reach his potential despite his slow growth.