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Can the Canadiens Unlock Kirby Dach?

The Montreal Canadiens paid a big price to bring in Kirby Dach this summer. Do they have the tools to unlock his potential?
Kirby Dach

The worst-kept secret on the draft floor in Montreal back in June wasn't Shane Wright's precipitous fall or the Canadiens' burgeoning love affair with Juraj Slafkovsky. 

Rather, the whispers that rippled through the Bell Centre on Day One focused instead on the Chicago Blackhawks and the organization's desire to get rid of Kirby Dach at all costs. 

By all accounts, this wasn't tied to a performance issue, either. As the night progressed, the chatter proceeded to paint Dach as a figure that the Blackhawks did not feel confident winning with -- a skilled player who had used being a recent third-overall pick as justification to be, let's say, less-than-open to constructive criticism. 

Despite being a skilled 21-year-old whose developmental trajectory seemed to align with the timeline of the Blackhawks' rebuild, the organization had apparently reached its breaking point with Dach and was shopping his name around to all who would listen. 

Of course, these were rumors. Each should be taken with a grain of salt. But given that every NHL front office was under the same roof at the time and word sept out from multiple directions, it's hard to believe there wasn't at least some morsel of truth. 

The Canadiens obviously ended up listening to the hardest to the Blackhawks' sales pitch, taking Dach off Montreal's hands that night in exchange for the 13th and 66th overall picks before ultimately signing him to a four-year contract extension two months later. 

In the end, both sides got what they wanted. Chicago gained the ability to focus on redefining the modern definition of the tank, while Dach now enters his second prestige organization in four years in the hopes of tapping into his immense potential. 

Frankly, the former task seems easier to accomplish than the latter. 

Dach has not had a fun time at the NHL level thus far. In 152 games spread across three seasons, the young center sits with just 19 goals and 40 assists for 59 points despite receiving ample opportunity from the fledgling Blackhawks. In 2021-22 alone, Dach averaged a surprising 18:08 in nightly ice time -- surprisingly down from his 18:34 the year before -- and was regularly playing in the club's top-six while holding down a role on the power play. 

The result? Nine goals and 26 points in 70 games. Not ideal. 

Now, to be fair, Dach wasn't exactly put in an optimal position for success, either. Even when solely restricting focus to the organization's on-ice debacles, the Blackhawks have still been among the worst teams in the NHL throughout his tenure, failing spectacularly to build a competent roster whose depth issues, in turn, pushed Dach into a role he was not even close to ready for.

That needs to be said. Taking into account the constant losing, and the coaching change that followed, when evaluating Dach's past performance is crucial. But it's not the whole story, either. The kid didn't exactly have to do the heavy lifting on his own. 

In 2021-22, Dach's most common linemate was Alex DeBrincat, a dynamic 40-goal scorer who drives possession and alongside whom he spent nearly 343 minutes at even-strength. Behind DeBrincat on Dach's rotation of frequent running mates sit a few other notable names: Patrick Kane, Brandon Hagel, and Dominik Kubalik -- each of who are established NHL scorers and who saw their expected goal and scoring chance shares skyrocket whenever split from Dach. 

Sure, the Blackhawks as a hockey team were not the most conducive environment for in which a talented but raw young forward could learn. But Dach also failed to create pretty much anything for himself, even as the coaching staff surrounded him with the roster's best talent. 

Despite playing with all-stars, Dach still ended last season having been out-scored, out-shot, and out-chanced at even-strength. Again; not ideal. 

And yet, sunnier skies seem to lie ahead in Montreal. 

The worst thing the Canadiens can possibly do for Dach next season relies on him. Dach is not a marquee player. Not right now, at least. Heading into 2022-23, Dach is nothing more than a member of the supporting cast -- someone given a steady dose of sheltered minutes and depth usage in order to both build back his confidence and help him learn the intricacies of the game away from the puck. 

That process should begin by starting Dach on the wing. The Canadiens, thankfully, have situated themselves in a position to ease him into their core -- unlike the Blackhawks did -- more or less locking in their top three center spots with any combination of Nick Suzuki, Christian Dvorak, Jake Evans, and (if healthy) Sean Monahan from the jump. There's no room for him down the middle right now. Dach can instead take his best shot at the weaker matchups of the opposing bottom-six, handling different assignments while, in turn, learning how to contribute without being an offensive focal point. 

This isn't to say that promotion couldn't come later on. But one has to be earned. The Blackhawks never made him do that. 

With Martin St. Louis behind the bench, Dach will now be playing for a coach whose praises he publicly sang upon arriving in Montreal. St. Louis and his staff seem far more suited to maximizing the talent of their young players than either Jeremy Colliton or Derek King were in Chicago. Just look at Cole Caufield's second-half explosion. But there's a point where their job ends and Dach's begins. 

The four-year length of his new deal gives both Dach and the Canadiens organization the benefit of time to get this right. It's a vote of confidence -- an acknowledgment that Dach's emergence won't happen overnight, but also a confirmation of their belief that it will one day happen. 

The rest is up to him. 

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