Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2021. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.
Last season was the first time the Blackhawks explicitly said the focus was going to be on the development and evaluation of their young players, yet The Plan™ took a major hit when Kirby Dach fractured his wrist just before Christmas and was projected to miss 4-5 months after surgery. It was especially devastating considering the strides Dach had taken the previous year and the dominant flashes seen in the playoff bubble against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Last season wasn’t completely lost for Dach, though, as he returned well ahead of schedule. His performance was still limited to just 18 games that were also cut short due to “post-operative discomfort” in his wrist. The good news is that Dach performed well in those 18 games. The bad news is that it was obvious he was still hampered, especially as the games progressed. As a result of the latter, Dach has slipped just slightly down this list, though his potential is still extremely high.
Dach was a somewhat surprise selection for the Blackhawks back in 2019 with their No. 3 pick: not because he wasn’t worthy of being picked that high, but because there were reports prior to draft night that implied the Blackhawks were interested in two other players. Still, Dach was one of the most impressive centers in the draft class, with excellent puck control, playmaking ability, and a strong defensive foundation.
Finishing up my Kirby Dach (#77) tracking, and his puck control never fails to impress me. In one of his gamely dominant sequences, he throws a defender to the ice with one hand then cuts through a group of defenders. #2019NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/EHNQJmMI4C— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) June 15, 2019
Kirby Dach's vision and puckhandling gets lots of talk (deservedly so), but I've also been impressed with his defence. He's so active on the backcheck, preventing entries and forcing dump ins.— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) October 12, 2018
A few clips from Oct 5. He led his team in failed entries against (6).#2019NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/wrWqEVh7vA
Dach has yet to play a full 82-game season, but he’s definitely shown flashes of why the Blackhawks selected him instead of the others they were reportedly interested in. Offensively, the points haven’t materialized to the degree that his underlying trends suggest they will: he had points-per-game rates 0.36 and 0.55, respectively, in his first two NHL seasons, followed by 0.67 in nine postseason games in 2020. As Dave illustrated back in May, Dach’s production isn’t far off from some other recent high draft picks, including the two young players selected above him in his own draft class. So while the points don’t scream definitive 1C of the future, the comparison to his peers and looking deeper into his performance should give fans the optimism that that goal is achievable.
Even last season, despite the lingering issues with his wrist, Dach was one of the best players on the Blackhawks in several key areas. His high-danger passing rate of 1.88 passes per 60 minutes was well above average and near the top for the team, even if it didn’t result in a lot of assists (likely due to a lower quality of linemates). His transition skills were still top-notch, especially in terms of zone entries, where he was successful in 67 percent of his carry-in opportunities (slightly better than Patrick Kane’s 65 percent) and top-three among Blackhawks forwards in controlled entries with a rate of 14.75 per 60. Dach also cycled well — something very few of the Blackhawks did last season — creating 11.65 shots per 60 off the forecheck. And defensively, his backchecking and relentless pursuit of the puck was noticeable practically every shift. These trends stack-up positively with his Blackhawks teammates and with top-quality players on other teams.
Shots and scoring were the areas that were most impacted by Dach’s wrist injury — he scored only two goals thanks to a 7.69 shot percentage and produced the fourth-worst shot rate among Blackhawks forwards with 4.67 shots per 60.
Obviously 18 games isn’t a lot to go on, but it’s not far off the 20-game mark in which performance trends tend to solidify for players, so we take hope that the performance is repeatable but with better results since Dach’s wrist should be (hopefully) fully healed.
Dach is expected to start the season as, at minimum, the No. 2 center for the Blackhawks, although he could shift up depending on Jonathan Toews’ situation. Hopefully he’ll be playing big minutes in all situations thanks to his skillset as a two-way player who is can excel both on the power play and the penalty kill. Ideally, Dach would be on a line with one of the better shooters on the team — like Alex DeBrincat or Dominik Kubalik — to take advantage of his excellent playmaking ability.
There is obviously some concern about Dach’s wrist, but he has been insistent that it’s back to 100 percent after an offseason primarily focused on rehab. If it truly is fully healed, this upcoming training camp will be the first time that Dach attends one in full health. Fans should still be patient with him, especially since he’s still 2-3 years away from his peak years. But Dach is primed to take a big step forward this season.