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What could the Canadiens be seeing in Kirby Dach?

How deeply did being a Chicago Blackhawks player hurt Kirby Dach, and do the Canadiens have the tools to help him recover?

NHL: DEC 09 Blackhawks at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Kirby Dach at the NHL Entry Draft on Thursday night, there were a number of perspectives swirling around the Bell Centre and beyond. After three years with little progression, were the Chicago Blackhawks jettisoning a lemon before the rest of the league caught on? Alternatively, were the Canadiens buying low on a prospect who desperately needed a change of scenery, thereby fleecing a team that had just sent Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for pennies on the dollar? Finally, should Kent Hughes have simply sat on the 13th overall selection acquired from the New York Islanders for Alexander Romanov?

Much of the reason for such a wide range of opinions is that the centrepiece of the trade, Dach, remains somewhat of a mystery. While his progression has unquestionably stalled to some extent, the player himself has been beset by circumstances beyond his control — first suffering a wrist injury that prematurely ended his sophomore campaign, and then shuffled up and down the lineup as the Blackhawks desperately tried to salvage a 2021-22 campaign that may have been doomed from the start.

What then, is Kirby Dach? Looking at his microstats courtesy of Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones tracking project, we see — on the surface — an offensively challenged centre who struggles in dump-and-chase situations. However, Dach’s forecheck, transition game, and rush offence are quite good. The biggest positive sign is that the 21-year-old has remarkable zone entry and exit numbers, ranking in the upper quartile of the league. He’s also not afraid to involve himself in defensive-zone play, as evidenced by his puck touches, nor does he shy away from killer passes on offence, as evidenced by his one-timer and high-danger assist values.

The other thing about Dach is something that has been touched on earlier: his numbers in certain situations are leagues above his overall averages. Looking at his linemate history in 2021-22 courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz, we broadly see three usage strategies: Patrick Kane (265 minutes with Dach at five-on-five), Alex DeBrincat (342), and Brandon Hagel (242) at the start of the season, a gradual transition toward Philipp Kurashev (271) and Dominik Kubalik (239), and then closing off the season alongside Sam Lafferty (151) and Mackenzie Entwistle (118). These three usage situations represented three very different on-ice realities for Dach.

Of the seven players listed, there is a starkly visible demarcation. Kane and DeBrincat are superstars, while Hagel is clearly useful enough for the Tampa Bay Lightning to throw two first-rounders and two players at the Blackhawks for his services. Meanwhile, Kubalik, Kurashev, Lafferty, and Entwistle are on the opposite end of the spectrum, with Kubalik and Kurashev having especially crimson 2021-22 report cards.

Note: These microstat percentiles are whole-season values, not WOWY (with or without you) numbers with Dach.

Unsurprisingly, Dach’s performance with good linemates surpassed his performance with bad ones. However, the gulf between the two extremes is shockingly wide. With Kane, DeBrincat, or even Hagel, Dach put up 1.3+ points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. With Kurashev and Kubalik, that number craters to 0.4-0.5 P/60, which is the difference between a 20-25 point pace and a 7-8 point one over Dach’s 982 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time in 2021-22.

As a reference point, 25 points at five-on-five would have been good enough for third on the Montreal Canadiens last season, tied with Artturi Lehkonen and Jake Evans. To really drive home the impact that teammates can have, Dach’s five-on-five goals-plus-primary-assist rate is 0.86 P/60. Nick Suzuki’s is 1.05 P/60. But Suzuki pulls away through secondary assists (0.64 P/60 to 0.24 for Dach).

Based on this, we see that Dach is a decent point-producer in a top-six role, but struggles to balance defensive responsibilities and offensive output when either playing in the bottom six or placed alongside substandard linemates. This is, frankly, not unexpected from a player who for all intents and purposes was completing his sophomore NHL season in 2021-22.

So what does that mean for the Canadiens in terms of fitting Dach into their roster? Well, despite not having a Kane or DeBrincat, the Canadiens are still much better positioned to give their new young centre some linemate support. For all of their flaws — and the handwringing of their fans — the Canadiens’ winger corps is, to a man, superior to that which housed the likes of Kurashev and Kubalik.

Even the more one-dimensional players have strengths in areas that are compatible with Dach’s current game. His affinity for one-timer passes is right in Mike Hoffman’s wheelhouse, and his ability to retrieve pucks in the defensive zone meshes with Jonathan Drouin’s weaknesses in that area.

The Canadiens also have an internal model for Dach — both as an example to the player to personally pursue and as an already established developmental blueprint: Suzuki. Curiously, from a microstat perspective, the two players are not all that different. Both Dach and Suzuki are below league average in offensive and passing metrics — I would argue largely due to the offensive challenges of playing on bad teams. Suzuki sets himself apart from Dach by excelling in a few key areas. First, where Dach is good at taking the puck out of the defensive zone, Suzuki is elite, which means more offensive opportunities through transition. Second, while both players are roughly equal when it comes to entering the offensive zone with possession, Suzuki is substantially better at turning possession into chances — and in turn, goals. These small differences, as well as Suzuki’s better supporting cast, can explain the discrepancy between Dach’s 18 five-on-five points and Suzuki’s 34 in 2021-22.

Looking at these numbers, it would be very premature to write Dach off as a finished product. Not only do his strengths offer a foundation for the Canadiens to build up, his pre-existing similarities to Suzuki give the Habs an opportunity to walk a path that they have already trod. By all means, the Dach acquisition is not without risk, but at the same time, nor are the Canadiens taking a blind gamble on a player based solely on his draft pedigree.