The talk of the town was that Kirby Dach was a bust who will never amount to a third-overall pick. It seemed like a good time for Chicago to move on from him and get value while they still could.
That was the analysis when Chicago traded Kirby Dach to the Montreal Canadiens at the 2022 NHL draft. But the 2019 third-overall selection has made everyone eat their words.
“I try not to pay too much attention to that,” Dach told The Hockey News. “I was on my way out, so it didn’t matter. I always knew I had it in me to be the player I am becoming now.”
The reaction in Montreal was much better. The prospect of adding a player heading into his age-21 season with a high pedigree and a history of producing at the junior level was enticing.
“Montreal embracing me the way they did was amazing,” Dach said. “Montreal is an amazing fanbase, and it’s amazing to see how much they care. It really gave me the chance to go out there, show what I can do on the ice, and just have fun and enjoy playing hockey again.”
The exit from Chicago and arrival in Montreal – and their respective reactions – showed the biggest problem with the expectations the hockey world puts on young players in today’s NHL.
We’ve had Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid come into the league and become dominant forces. Now, anytime an 18-year-old has some growing pains or needs further development, some media and fans alike conclude that they are busts far too quickly.
Dach had plenty of bright moments before his Montreal arrival, but it’s the fact he’s beginning to put all of the pieces together that makes him one of Montreal’s most important players thus far. His versatility in their lineup, playing anywhere from the third-line center to a top-line winger, has been an asset. His two-way game allows him to make an impact on a nightly basis.
At the moment, Dach ranks third in team scoring with 16 points in 18 games while leading the team in assists. The young forward also leads the team in goals above replacement, according to Evolving Hockey, a metric that attempts to assign a total value to each player for how much they contributed to their team. It accounts for everything from defensive impact to offensive output.
Dach leads the team with a 5.8 GAR. A couple of defenders, Johnathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris, are above 4.0. Only one other forward on the team is above 3.0 GAR, which is captain Nick Suzuki at 4.5.
Dach's offensive game analytics rate amongst the best on the team, equalling those of Suzuki or goal-scoring stud Cole Caufield, while his defensive metrics rate the best on the team regardless of position.
Dach’s 200-foot game has developed quite nicely at the NHL level. Now that he’s begun to score a bit more as well, he’s been able to say that he is one of Montreal’s most effective players to date.
Coming out of the 2019 NHL draft, Dach was heralded for his ability to effectively use his size, his understanding of how to play a responsible 200-foot game and his finesse as a playmaker. His biggest knock was that he lacked explosiveness in his skating, and his game was at its best when the pace was ramped down.
Dach was a bit of a surprise to go third overall, but it made sense when you consider he was a center with size and high-end offensive talent. He was viewed as a player who could come into the league, learn under Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and slowly take the mantle as the team’s top pivot.
It wasn’t supposed to start the very next season, but Dach made the roster. The question of what is best for a prospect’s development is always at hand fresh out of the draft.
Dach didn’t seem to mind the massive leap to the NHL.
“I don’t think it affected my development much in the long run,” he said. “There are some positives and some negatives (to making the team as an 18-year-old), but I just tried to focus on the positives.”
Three seasons later, Dach has been through some developmental hurdles. From being thrust into the center role from the start as an 18-year-old to the pandemic to injuries and surgery, Dach has been through a lot during some of his most pivotal developmental years.
Chicago gave up on a young talent as they opted to rebuild – even if at 21 years old, he would have fit into the window.
The Hawks’ loss winds up being the Habs' gain. Dach is currently on the wing on the top line, helping provide a defensive presence while being a play connector offensively, fitting in perfectly with Caufield and Suzuki.
The trio has been lights out since being put together by coach Martin St- Louis.
“He’s allowed me to go out and have fun again, enjoy the game of hockey,” Dach said. “He understands where the game is going because he was playing at a high level and it wasn’t that long ago. He knows where the league is going and isn’t afraid of it.”
Dach uses his size effectively by working the puck off the wall and into space. He slips by defenders at the net front to give himself room to work from in tight.
Playing on the wing, the pace issues that plagued him coming out of the WHL haven’t been noticeable. Dach’s trademark playmaking and vision have been just as effective working toward the middle of the ice instead of coming from the middle.
Dach is just getting to the age where most players are legitimately challenging for NHL time, and he has three seasons under his belt, as up-and-down as they've been. Dach is developing the co-ordination and control of his 6-foot-4 frame and finding success in all areas of the game.
Dach’s performance thus far in Montreal proves that both growth and time are necessary. Calling any player a bust this early in their career is a mistake. Unfortunately, it was a mistake that Chicago made too often.
Good times are ahead for the Habs as they rebuild and play an entertaining brand of hockey that's worth the price of admission, and Dach is enjoying being a part of it.
“I’m finding success in Montreal and having fun again.”