Instead of spending the next 24-48 arguing about whether or not the Blackhawks should’ve allowed Kirby Dach to compete in the tournament that ended his 2021 NHL season before it started, let’s zoom out to examine the big picture of what this setback does to the team’s future.
Losing a season’s worth of games — albeit an abbreviated one — may not ultimately affect Dach’s development as a player. He turns 20 on Jan. 21 and, after impressing during his rookie season, there are plenty of reasons to believe that he can still live up to the billing of the No. 3 overall pick that Chicago made him in 2019.
The issue is that the Blackhawks can’t afford lengthy impediments in the development of their prospects.
It all circles back to one glaring issue with whatever rebuild/retool/reload plan the Blackhawks are embarking on at the moment:
They do not have a replacement for Patrick Kane in the system.
There remains plenty of reasons to believe Dach could become the heir apparent to Toews in the next few seasons, just as Father Time comes calling for Toews’ ability to remain a viable option atop Chicago’s lineup.
No such prospect exists in Kane’s case, though.
Kane might be the best offensive player in franchise history, considering his level of production in this era of hockey. That type of ability is not easily replaced. Current and future top-six guys like Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Lukas Reichel, etc. could all be very good hockey players but don’t project as the first-ballot Hall of Fame caliber of player that Kane has become.
And that’s a HUGE problem, because Kane can’t keep doing this forever.
He’s already 32 years old and will likely surpass 1,000 regular season games played in the upcoming season. He’s also played 136 postseason games and represented Team USA in several international tournaments. He’s played an absurd amount of hockey in the last 13 years.
To Kane’s credit, his last five seasons may have been his most impressive. He’s stayed over a point-per-game pace (465 points in 397 games) while the team around him plummeted towards the NHL’s basement. But all the mileage Kane has logged in his career will catch up at some point — especially if Jeremy Colliton spends the next season triple-shifting Kane in a desperate attempt to salvage a season that already feels lost.
Back in October, general manager Stan Bowman explained what the Blackhawks plan was, as reported by ESPN’S Emily Kaplan:
(Portions of the quotes below were bolded for emphasis by Second City Hockey)
“But what I don’t want it to mean is we’re trying to tear this team apart and trying to bring in a whole new group of players in the next year and a half,” Bowman told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview on Monday. “But we do need to rebuild the depth of our team. We don’t have enough players, top to bottom, to compete with the top teams. We’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve got a pretty good start on the makings of a good team, but we still have a ways to go yet, and I accept that.
“We’re committed to developing young players and rebuilding our roster,” the letter read. “We want more than another window to win; we want to reach the summit again, and stay there — an effort that will require a stockpile of emerging talent to complement our top players.”
That’s the current plan: supplement Chicago’s current top-end talent (Toews, Kane, etc.) with improving youngsters (Dach, Boqvist, etc.) and hope that can be meshed into a Cup-contending team.
Every prospect who experiences a setback in their development affects the probability of that plan’s success. Dach’s having his setback now, with his next meaningful hockey game likely 10 months away. Kane will be about a month away from his 33rd birthday by then. Toews will be almost halfway to 34.
Time is not on the Blackhawks’ side.