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Kirby Dach might be a winger on paper, but he isn’t always one on the ice

The centre-turned-winger brings a lot of flexibility and variation to the top line, helping Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki confuse defenders.

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens and their fans have had a fixation with the centre position for … suffice it to say, a long time. Naturally, hopes and expectations were through the roof for Kirby Dach when he was acquired at the 2022 NHL Draft — as was the criticism when he only tallied a goal and two assists through his first eight games. Dach’s move to the first line was seen as an admission of failure in some circles, that the former third overall selection was yet another name on Montreal’s list of centre experiments that didn’t pan out.

Dach’s success on the top trio has mostly quieted those voices who labelled him a problem, but said voices could still claim that his eight points in six games merely cements him as an excellent winger — one that, while valuable, is still not a solution to the Canadiens' depth issues down the middle.

However, there are advantages to playing a natural centre down the wing, as Team Canada can attest. Dach’s positioning and playstyle often doesn’t match that of the classical winger. For one, his defensive prowess helps insulate Cole Caufield and allows Nick Suzuki to push deeper into the offensive zone without worrying about being caught up ice. More strikingly, Dach is still able to play in the middle of the ice, allowing him and Suzuki to be essentially interchangeable when it comes to positioning.

Dach’s first goal against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday was an example of this. From the get-go, when the Canadiens initially retrieved the puck, Dach was the forward in the slot, the position that would normally be occupied by the centre. Instead, Dach’s defensive posture allowed Caufield and Suzuki to fly the zone.

This, in turn, allowed Caufield to receive a stretch pass at the Vancouver blue line and Suzuki to be present to offer support.

As Caufield stopped up and threw the pass cross-ice, Suzuki had drifted into the standard RW position to spread the defenders. This, unfortunately, allowed J.T. Miller to intercept the pass as the backchecking forward. However, Miller was facing his own goal and did not know what was behind him. He did know where Suzuki was, meaning that the player marking Miller would be a winger — a winger who would typically be unfamiliar with the middle of the ice and play conservatively. In this situation, Miller would have all the time in the world.

Dach, of course, is not your typical winger and played the situation like a centre. He charged Miller aggressively and his prolonged run-in allowed him to see Miller’s turn and attack his blindside. Miller was completely caught off guard. One panicked turnover later, and the Canadiens had a 3-0 lead.

Dach’s second marker, on the other hand, showed off his ability to flip between traditional centre and traditional winger.

As the Canadiens cut off a Vancouver zone exit attempt on the boards, Dach again was positioning himself as the third forward, traditionally the role of the centre. Because he was there as a security blanket, Caufield and Suzuki played aggressively. Caufield charged in as the first forechecker on Tyler Myers, while Suzuki stopped at the half-wall to pick up turnovers or stop an outlet pass. Dach, meanwhile, had drifted to the opposite side of the ice, taking a classical winger’s sneaky cut into the middle.

The Canucks, thinking that he’d gone back to the neutral zone to play high forward, completely forgot that he exists, and when Suzuki whipped the pass in, Dach had acres of room.

Playing wing is probably not going to help Dach learn how to win faceoffs, but the newest member of Montreal’s top line isn’t showing any two-way rust despite playing what is traditionally a position with little defensive responsibility. Instead, Dach’s 200-foot game is freeing up Caufield and Suzuki to act more assertively. Moreover, the two most talented players on Montreal’s squad seem to have the ability to naturally interpret Dach’s movements, with this interplay creating a lot of on-ice tactical variation and obfuscation. Ultimately, playing wingman to Suzuki and Caufield may actually help Dach become a better centre, while giving Montreal a very different but no less potent replacement for Tatar-Danault-Gallagher.