Kirby Dach’s rookie year was memorable before it even began.
After being a surprise third overall pick in most people’s eyes, Dach started a sprint of a summer. He was touted around the city of Chicago, showed why he was the No. 3 pick at the team’s annual prospect camp, participated in the Blackhawks Convention then the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan and the NHL Prospect Camp in Traverse City.
In Traverse City, though, Dach’s journey hit a speed bump. A concussion during a seventh-place game sidelined him for training camp and the start of the Blackhawks season. He practiced with the team in Europe for the Global Series event, but was sent to the AHL for a three-game conditioning stint with the Rockford IceHogs before eventually making his NHL debut one year ago today, Oct. 20, against the Capitals at the United Center in Chicago.
Dach played in 64 of the Blackhawks’ 70 regular-season games to start his NHL career, scoring 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists). He cleared three major hurdles along the way to stay in the NHL all season: the 10-game mark to use the first year of his contract, not being sent to the World Junior Championship and the 40-game mark to make him an unrestricted free agent one year sooner.
The heat map below from HockeyViz shows red areas indicating where the Blackhawks created offense with Dach on the ice and blue shows where they generated less than league-average offense. The highest concentrated areas of offense came from the bottom of the faceoff circles, with the right side being more heavily impacted of the two.
Below, red areas illustrate where the Blackhawks’ opponents shot more with Dach on the ice, while blue is where shots were suppressed. The heat map being filled with red in high-danger areas in front of the net underscores how poor Blackhawks were defensively at preventing prime scoring chances for their opponents.
Single value statistics like Game Score Value Added (GSVA) from The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model and Goals Above Replacement (GAR) from Evolving Hockey’s Luke and Josh Younggren can be used to add more context to Dach’s season as it relates to the team and others.
GSVA is based on game score, which combines box score statistics with analytical metrics. GAR brings together multiple areas of play, including even strength (offense and defense) and special teams (power play offense and short-handed defense).
Dach’s .30 GSVA ranked eighth among Blackhawks forwards with at least 40 NHL games. Patrick Kane (3.07), Alex DeBrincat (1.99), Jonathan Toews (1.92), Dominik Kubalik (1.86), Dylan Strome (1.20), Brandon Saad (1.18) and Drake Caggiula (.35) were the top seven players in terms of GSVA. Andrew Shaw had a higher GSVA (1.07) than Dach, but Shaw only played 26 games before he was sidelined with a concussion.
Dach’s GSVA was also higher than both players selected before him in the draft, with Devils’ Jack Hughes (-.27) and Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko (-1.35). The top three picks were the only players from the 2019 draft class to play in the NHL this past season.
Dach’s 4.6 GAR ranked sixth among Blackhawks forwards behind Toews (11.2), Kubalik (10.4), Kane (5.9), Strome (4.7) and DeBrincat (4.6). Dach also has a higher GAR rating than Hughes (-3) and Kakko (-9.6).
Dach had some peaks and valleys in his first season scoring wise. He had a goal and an assist in his first three games then went cold before a four-game point streak (three goals, three assists) in mid-November. He then went 27 of 28 games without a point, including a 15-game stretch from Nov. 21 to Dec. 19. A goal in Chicago’s 5-3 win Dec. 21 at Colorado saved him from going 28 straight games without a point. Dach put up a five-game point streak (one goal, five assists) then had five assists in the last 16 games before the NHL was paused because of COVID-19.
During the pause, Dach was able to finally rest before getting back to work. And work he did. Ian Mack, Patrick Kane’s trainer, sent him pre-recorded workouts and instructed him through FaceTime. Dach wanted to add strength and weight onto his 6-foot-4 frame, specifically his lower body to protect and retrieve the puck from opponents in battles. But Dach was mindful about wanting to do it in a smart and effective way so he didn’t lose his speed and agility. Mack also helped Dach track his sleep better, which resulted in the 19-year-old not playing video games late into the night.
The early returns on Dach’s work with Mack showed during the rookie’s performance in the postseason. He had six points (one goal, five assists) in a limited sample size of nine games, but more than that he showed he belongs as the No. 2 center and looks to be the No. 1 center in the future.
“I need to find more confidence in my shot and work on that over the break,” Dach said during his exit interview Aug. 25. “As a pass-first guy, if you’re able to develop a shooting mentality, it’s going to open up passing lanes. That’s still something I need to work on.”
Kirby Dach wins a board battle then finds Olli Maatta, who fires a shot that goes off Kris Russell and into the net.— Brandon Cain (@brandonmcain) August 4, 2020
It's 3-3. #Blackhawks #Oilers pic.twitter.com/Q8igkOqhzM
When Kirby Dach starts to be more selfish with the puck this type of sequence is going to be fun to watch. #Blackahwks pic.twitter.com/f8X1kBT7QY— Brandon Cain (@brandonmcain) August 8, 2020
Kirby Dach scores his first career playoff goal to cut the deficit to 2-1. #Blackhawks #VegasBorn pic.twitter.com/pEpo4HrIw2— Brandon Cain (@brandonmcain) August 13, 2020
Kirby Dach scoring chance #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/Snvbgph4CM— Brandon Cain (@brandonmcain) August 16, 2020
GSVA isn’t publicly available, but GAR is so it can be used to show how Dach’s rookie season compared to other forwards drafted third overall since 2009. Keep in mind, Dach would’ve played out Chicago’s remaining games on the schedule if it were not for the pandemic.
Strome (OHL Erie), Jonathan Drouin (QMJHL Halifax) and Jonathan Huberdeau (QMJHL Saint John) all returned to their respective Canadian Hockey League teams for their draft-plus-one season. Drouin spent his draft-plus-two season in the NHL aside from two AHL games, Huberdeau played in the QMJHL before the 2013 NHL season started and Strome played seven NHL games before he rejoined the OHL for the rest of the season.
Dach is a different player from each of the other players listed above. But they all have a common bond of possessing enough skill to be selected where they were. On average third overall picks add 10.2 wins in the first seven years after being selected, according to Luszczyszyn. Dach’s draft-plus-two season will likely be shorter than 82 games with the NHL targeting a Jan. 1, 2021 start date, but that might be pushed back even more.
If Dach (eight goals, 23 points) can be more consistent — on and off the puck — and possess a better shot in his second season, he’ll likely be on par or perform better than Huberdeau did in a shortened 2013 season (14 goals, 31 points). Dach’s play in the postseason provided a preview of what he can do during an unofficial offseason and now with a real offseason he’ll look to take another step in his development to become the player he and the Blackhawks want him to be.
Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz and Dom Luszczyszyn.