In the simplest of terms, the last five months of Kirby Dach’s hockey career did not follow the script.
The sequence of events is familiar to everyone by now: a fractured wrist just before Christmas, a surgery with a projected recovery time of 4-5 months, a return well ahead of schedule, and then 18 games played before being shut down for the final three due to what the team described as “post-operative discomfort.”
Yes, it was a weird year for everyone in and out of the hockey world and the 2021 NHL season remains such an anomaly that drawing any firm conclusions can be a lesson in futility.
Still, having Dach sidelined for three months and then still hampered by the same injury upon his return is just about the opposite of the ideal plan for Chicago’s No. 3 overall pick in 2019. But contrasting feelings from the last year can exist at the same time: lingering disappointment from the loss of significant ice time during the vital, formative stages of Dach’s career along with continued optimism that the player we saw during the 2020 postseason is more indicative of what Dach is and will become.
Through two abbreviated seasons, Dach has played a standard NHL regular season’s worth of 82 games, with 10 goals and 23 assists in those games, averaging 15:13 of ice time. But it’s worth separating those numbers to see the difference in production levels (and ice time, especially):
19-20: 64 Games played, 8 G, 15 A, 23 P, 14:16 Average Time on Ice
‘21: 18 GP, 2 G, 8 A, 10 P, 18:34 ATOI
In the nine aforementioned postseason games, the numbers looked like this:
2020 postseason: 9 GP, 1 G, 5 A, 6 P, 19:24 ATOI
Overall, it’s a mixed bag of results.
And that’s not so bad!
Because mixed bags of results have been a common occurrence among others players drafted at or near the same spots as Dach.
The two players selected ahead of him haven’t exactly distanced themselves from the draft pack yet. Here’s No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes’ numbers from his two seasons in New Jersey:
‘19-20: 61 GP, 7 G, 14 A, 21 P
‘21: 56 GP, 11 G, 20 A, 31 P
Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick, has even lower numbers:
‘19-20: 66 GP, 10 G, 13 A, 23 P
‘21: 48 GP, 9 G, 8 A, 17 P
Go back to the 2018 Draft and there are a few players whose numbers were ahead of Dach’s at this stage of their careers, keeping in mind that Dach turned 19 in January of his rookie season as a reference point.
Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov (No. 2 pick) also debuted as an 18-year-old then found his footing in the next season:
‘18-19: 82 GP, 20 G, 17 A, 37 P
‘19-20: 82 GP, 24 G, 37 A, 61 P
‘21: 55 GP, 15 G, 27 A, 42 P
Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk (No. 4 pick) turned 19 one month before his NHL debut and has had consistent levels of production since arriving:
‘18-19: 71 GP, 22 G, 23 A, 45 P
‘19-20: 71 GP, 21 G, 23 A, 44 P
‘21: 56 GP, 17 G, 19 A, 36 P
Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi (No. 3 pick) was 18 for his entire rookie season — he turned 19 in July 2019 — and hasn’t quite matched the number of the two players drafted around him:
‘18-19: 79 GP, 11 G, 23 A, 34 P
‘19-20: 36 GP, 6 G, 2 A, 8 P
‘21: 56 GP, 5 G, 15 A, 20 P
Dach will likely be compared to Jonathan Toews for his entire career, because both were selected No. 3 overall, just 13 years apart. Toews was dubbed the team’s No. 1 center as soon as he arrived in Chicago and scored 54 points in 64 games of his rookie season.
However, a key point to understand is that Toews remained at North Dakota for one more season after being drafted, making his NHL debut as a 19-year-old. Dach did not take that extra year. And Toews is a future Hall-of-Famer whose production in his rookie season was closer to the exception than to the rule. It would’ve been great if Dach had arrived with Toews’ level of immediate production, but the fact that Dach hasn’t is not enough to dismiss his potential for vast improvement. Toews also had the benefit of playing with Patrick Kane throughout his rookie season, while Dach has seen some of — but certainly not a majority of — his ice time with the top two lines.
All of this is to say that Dach’s future in the NHL is still an open book without too many answers yet. He’s had some good moments. He’s had some bad moments. But he’s also been a teenager playing against adult men for the last few years. As he enters his 20s and his physical attributes mature just as much as his on-ice abilities, there are still plenty of reasons to believe Dach can live up to the billing of a No. 3 overall pick.
In fact, Winnipeg forward Mark Scheifele recently talked about that on the Men in Blazers podcast. Scheifele was a No. 7 overall pick in 2011, stayed in the OHL for two more seasons and still required a few more NHL seasons before morphing into the point-per-game player he’s been for the last five seasons:
"I'd crush like 12 granola bars a day."— NHL (@NHL) May 20, 2021
From refining his diet to trying new training techniques, @markscheifele55 is willing to do whatever it takes. #StanleyCup
Watch the full episode of @MenInBlazers On Ice presented by @JagermeisterUSA ➡️ https://t.co/EZki21Jdjt pic.twitter.com/tvcgBnOGUm
And if injury concerns are still nagging, keep in mind that Flyers center Sean Couturier — a No. 8 overall pick — sustained a broken wrist in his second NHL season and still developed into a No. 1 center who has a Selke Trophy on his career highlight reel (this was referenced by L_B_R on our podcast this week).
We’ll find out about Dach soon enough. Drawing any firm conclusions from this small sample of his career — especially with that whole pandemic thing making everything weird for the last year — seems excessively premature.