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How Kirby Dach the winger helps Kirby Dach the centre

It may seem counterintuitive, but Dach is learning things as a winger that will serve him well in the future whether he’s on the flank or in the middle.

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

October 29, 2022. The Montreal Canadiens had just finished a definitive 7-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues. The win, which saw the team come back from a 1-3 deficit, was hailed as a testament to how different this year’s incarnation of the Habs was from the previous year’s edition. However, lost amid the wake of three-point nights from Christian Dvorak, Cole Caufield, and Nick Suzuki, was the debut of Kirby Dach as the first-line winger.

Despite Dach putting up two points on Suzuki and Caufield’s flank, commentary — if present at all — was full of trepidation at best. According to Brian Wilde, writing for Global News, although Dach was a “creative player […] that could work well with Suzuki and Caufield,” his move to the wing “does not help Dach get to a higher level down the middle.” Wilde ultimately rationalized his discomfort with head coach Martin St-Louis’s decision with, “Here’s the positive though: It’s just one game. It’s not as if this is a season-long decision to move Dach to the wing.”

Fast forward two weeks and the Dach-Suzuki-Caufield trio is one of the hottest in the league. Since that October evening, the three members of the line have combined for a whopping 32 points in seven games. Nonetheless, Dach’s success still sparks concerns that the Canadiens have merely acquired strength on the wing in exchange for a weakness down the middle. Almost a decade after Claude Julien moved Alex Galchenyuk from centre to wing for good, the spectre of third overall selections past yet lingers in the present.

But the rationale and objectives underlying Dach’s move are night and day from those that pushed Galchenyuk to the side. Whereas Galchenyuk’s move to the wing was to mitigate his defensive liabilities, Dach’s move to the wing is to accentuate his strengths. Whereas Galchenyuk’s move could be construed as punishment, Dach’s move should be interpreted as a reward — a vote of confidence.

Before the team left The Gateway City en route to Minnesota, head coach St-Louis was asked about what he was looking for in his top line. After all, Dach, at the time, was simply the latest experiment on a list that featured Sean Monahan, Mike Hoffman, and Josh Anderson. The Canadiens bench boss emphasized that he was looking for someone who could complement the skills and styles of Caufield and Suzuki. Citing his playing days, when he formed high-skill duos with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, and Brad Richards, St-Louis remarked that, “the third guy always came in there and kind of played his game but always facilitated.” “You always try to bring a guy there that brings something to that line,” St-Louis continued, before ultimately emphasizing that “the guy who goes in has to understand what [Suzuki] and [Caufield] do best.”

Some interpreted these comments to indicate that St-Louis was hinting that he was earmarking Juraj Slafkovský to grow into the role, an interpretation aided by the coach’s citing of Václav Prospal and Fredrik Modin as examples of good “third wheels.” But the 6’ 4” 212 lb Dach ticks just as many boxes mentioned by St-Louis as the 6’ 3” 238 lb Slafkovský. There is no reason to think that Dach’s move is anything other than a reflection of the faith that the coaching staff has in him to make the Canadiens’ top two offensive threats even better. Dach likely understands this as well, given that he remarked that St-Louis was “going to help me bring out my best skill assets and become a dominant player” even before landing in Montreal.

It must also be noted that the Canadiens middle-six winger corps have had some difficulties getting onto the same wavelength as Dach during the first eight games of the season. An analysis of Dach’s 2021-22 season with the Chicago Blackhawks noted that his performance varied dramatically depending on his wingers. Montreal’s depth wingers, as predicted, did offer more quality than the likes of Dominik Kubalik and Philipp Kurashev. But while Dach could more than adequately complement the specific strengths of an Anderson or a Jonathan Drouin (he recorded a five-on-five CF% of 55.9%, a SF% of 55.3%, and an xGF% of 58.2% during his eight games at centre), his track record clearly showed that he plays best alongside multi-dimensional players such as Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.

The final, and maybe most important reason for moving Dach to the first-line wing is that it might actually help him to be a better centre. When the forward was initially acquired by the Canadiens, Elite Prospects QMJHL scout David St-Louis assessed that Dach was a player who “built his game around his hands and not his size”, and that almost all of Dach’s weaknesses revolved around board-play issues. Dach’s skating posture, for example, “[negatively] affect his ability to cut in front of opponents, to win a loose puck, lean against them to protect it, keep his balance against back pressure, and escape that back pressure,” according to St-Louis, who also noted that Dach had trouble beating opponents on the walls. Most damning, St-Louis perceived that Dach had a general distaste for board-play: “Last season, Dach’s strategy when he received a puck on the wall was to rim it to another teammate as fast as possible.”

These issues held Dach’s development back in significant ways. The “missing link” between his other tools, as St-Louis puts it. For Dach, improving his board-play would give him more options when responding to pressure and more methods to dictate the opposition. It would also allow him to force more turnovers defensively. In short, how Dach applied his physicality was the difference between him going with the play and forcing it himself.

Dach the winger will have many more opportunities to test himself on the boards than Dach the centre. This isn’t only something that the Canadiens coaching staff has figured out, but it was also mentioned by Dach’s coach in Chicago, Derek King. When Dach was first pushed to the wing in March of 2022, King believed that it would give him a better perspective on the game. Mark Lazerus, who covers the Blackhawks for The Athletic, noted at the time that Dach “now has to pick pucks off the boards, win more battles, read rims, and play a more start-and-stop skating game. All new skills he can add to his impressive all-around arsenal.” Furthermore, as a winger, Dach has more freedom to work on his net-front presence, a tool that a player of his build needs to have.

The early returns seem positive. In Saturday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dach’s physicality directly contributed to Caufield’s game-tying goal to start the third period. Chasing a loose puck on the zone entry, he shielded the puck from Penguins defender Marcus Pettersson, allowing a trailing Suzuki to seize control. After picking himself up off the ice, he also timed his move to the top of the crease perfectly, flashing across goaltender Tristan Jarry’s line of sight just as Caufield’s innocuous wrister from the point arrived at the net. Dach received no points for his work, but his actions had the most impact on the sequence.

Although it may seem paradoxical, having Dach play on the wing can actually make him a better centre. After all, all of the skills that Dach the winger will be honing — close-quarters skating, leveraging his frame, keeping plays alive, net-front presence, and more — can be transferred to Dach the centre. We need to look no further than Suzuki (and Sidney Crosby, and Phillip Danault, and a mountain of other names) to see how important winning board battles is, even for a position that is stereotypically restricted to the middle of the ice. Ultimately, the Canadiens are focused on making Dach a better player, and by playing him with Caufield and Suzuki they have a unique opportunity to simultaneously work on his weaknesses while continuing to refine his strengths. Hopefully, the end result will be a pillar of the Canadiens offence for years to come, who can alternate between centre and wing, as needed, without missing a beat.