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Can the Canadiens’ new development team unlock Kirby Dach’s potential?

Dach has had an underwhelming NHL career so far, but is there more for him to show in Montreal?

New Jersey Devils v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

A chaotic first hour of the 2022 NHL Draft featured the first-ever Slovakian first-overall selection, followed by previous sure-fire first-overall pick Shane Wright falling down to fourth. However, the cherry on top occurred before the fifth selection could hit the stage when the Montreal Canadiens sent the Bell Centre into a frenzy with a pair of trades to land the centre that their fans thought had vanished with Wright’s selection.

The Canadiens sent Alexander Romanov and the 98th overall pick to the New York Islanders for the 13th overall pick, which they promptly flipped to the Chicago Blackhawks along with the 66th overall pick for Kirby Dach. The Blackhawks’ firesale worked to the Habs’ benefit, with 21-year-old Dach potentially slotting in behind Nick Suzuki on Montreal’s centre depth chart.

Dach’s arrival adds context to Juraj Slafkovsky’s selection. Dach’s age and position fit the Canadiens' timeline for their rebuild, and the relatively low cost allowed them to make this move while still retaining enough asset depth to take a shot on the towering Slovak winger.

However, there is more to Dach than simply providing peace of mind for the Slafkovsky selection.

In his draft year, the narrative surrounding Dach was similar to that which followed Wright — the 6’4” centre clocking in at just shy of 200 lbs (at the time) had all the tools to dominate but failed to wow scouts in the way that they were hoping for. Through the first three years of Dach’s NHL career, that narrative hasn’t changed too much. The third-overall selection of 2019 has, on paper, underwhelmed, failing to top 10 goals or 30 points in any individual campaign thus far.

That said, the Blackhawks have hardly created the most nurturing environment for Dach, alternating between trying to grasp the last embers of a dying dynasty and lighting the bonfire of a full-scale rebuild. Dach’s 0.48 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes is far from impressive, yet at the same time, Jonathan Toews only posted 0.59 over the same span. Scoring depth outside of Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane was a real problem for the Blackhawks. It also has to be noted that Dach more than held his own when sheltered with the likes of DeBrincat and Kane, but could not tread water outside of a top-six role. The last half of the 2021-22 season was especially rough for Dach. Playing mostly with Brandon Hagel or Sam Lafferty, Dach was a -13 (13 GF, 30 GA) at 5-on-5, compared to the first half of the year when he was an even (20 GF, 20 GA) top-six contributor.

Dach has also underperformed his expected goal tallies, with xG models indicating that he should have tallied almost 60% more goals than he actually did. Whether this is a product of poor utilization, bad positioning, or actual hands of stone remains to be seen, Look at Artturi Lehkonen who serves as an example of how a change of scenery can translate to a boost in goal scoring. Kent Hughes is likely hoping for something similar.

Therein lies perhaps the crux of Hughes’ rationale: Dach’s potential upside is as real as his current inability to live up to his draft position. If the Canadiens can cultivate Dach properly, there is a real chance that they can come out of this draft with a legitimate one-two punch down the middle and a big-bodied scoring winger. Given the differences in their developmental leashes, it is likely Dach — not Slafkovsky — will represent the first test for the revamped Canadiens player coaching and development team.