ROCKFORD — Kirby Dach took a step toward playing in the NHL this season Saturday.
Dach, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, was informed Friday night about the Blackhawks’ intention to assign him to the Rockford IceHogs for an AHL conditioning stint. He was cleared to play Saturday morning in Chicago then skated with the Blackhawks before being driven to the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford.
Even though he was in some new surroundings, the 18-year-old Dach found some familiarities with the trip.
“(The trip) kind of reminded me of going back to juniors where you practice in the morning at your own rink, then go home and have a nap, eat some food and then go on the bus and play somewhere else,” Dach said. “So it wasn’t too much out of the usual for me. It was a long day, but it was fun.”
Dach hit the ice for warmups with the IceHogs then hopped over the boards in the opening minute of the game against the Grand Rapids Griffins to begin his professional career. He recorded two shots on goal in the second period, was on the ice for Michael Rasmussen’s goal, forced turnovers, drew two penalties, struggled with faceoffs and played in about every situation during Rockford’s 4-2 home opening loss. He centered a line with Brandon Hagel and Nick Moutrey.
IceHogs head coach Derek King found out Dach would be joining his team Saturday morning, and juggled his lineup accordingly. King coached Dach at the NHL Prospect tournament, where the center suffered a concussion after being slammed into the boards during the seventh-place game Sept. 10 against the Wild.
“I thought he played well,” King said. “For somebody who hasn’t played in a while since Traverse (City), he looked really good out there. He controls it. He’s a big body. He’s got great hands. He’s a smart hockey player.
“When he gets the puck, he seems to control the play. So if you’re playing with him, give him the opening or find a lane or something because he’ll find you.”
Dach said his head is clear and he’s not dealing with any concussion-like symptoms. He admitted he felt anxious going into the game, but settled in as the game went on.
“Obviously it felt pretty good. First shift, shift-and-a-half, kinda nervous for my first pro game,” Dach said. “So just tried to step back and see what it’s about. Then after that I was able to feel comfortable and make plays, but there’s things in my game I need to clean up to be better and play at the next level.”
Here’s a look at two of Dach’s shifts:
Dach’s struggles on faceoffs were particularly noticeable as he lost almost every one he took. He attributed that to playing against men and the strength advantage they have over him.
“They’re a little bigger and stronger than they are in junior, but I knew that coming in and it’s something that I kind of worked on this summer,” Dach said. “Getting bigger and stronger and working on technique around the dot. I know if I want to be a centerman in this league I can’t be losing faceoffs all the time.”
So what’s next for Dach?
He’s expected to play again for the IceHogs on Monday afternoon against Laval, but what happens after that is somewhat unclear. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has said the organization will give Dach the opportunity to play in the NHL this season. Dach can play in up to nine NHL games before Bowman is forced to either keep Dach in the NHL and use the first year of Dach’s entry-level contract or assign him to the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL.
Dach can be on an AHL assignment for up to 14 days and four more games, but he’ll likely be called up prior to that fourth game which falls during Rockford’s Oct. 25-26 road trip to Cleveland. Both Chicago and Rockford play their next two games Monday and Friday with no games in between. The Blackhawks could call him up sometime during the week and have him make his NHL debut Oct. 18 against the Blue Jackets or wait until after Friday’s games for his debut to be Oct. 20 against the Capitals.
“There’s a long road ahead of me still and I got to take this journey one step at a time,” Dach said. “It’s been a blast so far, spending time in Chicago and then coming out here and seeing a bunch of the younger guys I got to know at prospect camp. I’m just looking forward to the future.”
Monday, Oct. 13: Rocket at Rockford, Oilers at Chicago
Friday, Oct. 18: Wolves at Rockford, Blue Jackets at Chicago
Saturday, Oct. 19: Rockford at Wolves (Rosemont, Ill.)
Sunday, Oct. 20: Capitals at Chicago
Tuesday, Oct. 22: Golden Knights at Chicago
Thursday, Oct. 24: Flyers at Chicago
Friday, Oct. 25: Rockford at Cleveland