What should the Blackhawks do about Kirby Dach?
An analytical look into Dach’s ups and downs this season.
Shortly after Kyle Davidson was officially named the General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, he announced that the team was going into a rebuild.
While Davidson’s continued comments on the current strategy for the Blackhawks feel very different than prior GM Stan Bowman — who seemingly abandoned those rebuilding plans less than year after a letter announced them — one key element to Davidson’s success will be assessing and developing young players already in the Blackhawks organization.
One of the most important young players that Davidson will have to figure out is Kirby Dach.
The No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft was once heralded as the heir-apparent to Jonathan Toews for the top-line center role, but there have been several missteps and setbacks, and Dach hasn’t progressed as initially projected.
He’s still just 21 years old, though, and it seems unlikely that the team would give up on a No. 3 pick this quickly. To get a better understanding of the entire situation surrounding Dach, let’s start with a deeper look at Dach’s third-year performance and how it compares to his previous seasons.
What Went Wrong
Offensively, Dach didn’t show much this past season: he had just 26 points (9 G, 17 A) in 70 games, a disappointing production rate no matter how you look at it. Numbers like that are the main reasons why faith is being lost that Dach can become a top-six forward in the NHL. It’s likely too soon to reach that definitive conclusion, especially considering his age, but having concern remains understandable.
The primary culprit for Dach’s lower production is still his finishing, which was in the bottom 9th percentile in the league. And that lack of finishing is due to the terrible combination of a low shooting percentage (7.8 percent) and shot volume (1.65 shots per game). His shots per 60 rate this season increased slightly from 4.55 last season to 5.51 this season, but both of those rates are below his rookie year mark of 6.64 and ranks among the bottom 2 percent of the league. This trend continues with shot location: Dach took slightly more shots per 60 from high-danger areas this season (2.99) than last year (2.66) but was still down from his rookie year (4.14). The only positive shot category for Dach is shooting off the rush (10.07), which was good for the 60th percentile in the league.
While goal scoring has never been a calling card for Dach, playmaking has, and the drop in terms of assists this season — both his assists on goals and his assists on shots for teammates — is the most concerning development from an offensive standpoint. At 5-on-5, his primary assist per 60 rate slipped from being in the 85th percentile last season (1.07) to the 37th percentile this season (0.43). Dach’s rate of assists on high-danger shots dropped from 1.94 in 2021 to 0.99 in ‘21-22, although that was in the top half of the league (51st percentile). Dach’s general scoring chance rate of 2.96 in ‘21-22 was in the 64th percentile and roughly the same as his 2.98 mark from 2021. As with his shooting, Dach’s best passing category was off the rush — also in the 64th percentile for the league.
It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a “slump” year. Examples include Alex DeBrincat and Nathan MacKinnon, who each had sub-50-point seasons in one or more of their first four seasons in the NHL. But Dach’s never had a high season from which to slump. It doesn’t help that the area in which Dach needs the most help — in-zone passing and shooting — are things the Blackhawks have been poor at providing situationally as they are one of the worst puck possession and cycling teams in the league. This is not to say that the offensive issues Dach has had this season are fully due to the terrible coaching system, but it certainly didn’t help.
What Went Right
While the offensive results just weren’t there for Dach, the season wasn’t without positives, primarily with Dach’s transition play. But there were also signs of progress with his play at even-strength and on the penalty kill.
Dach’s zone entry numbers — such as entries per 60, entry possession rate, and carry-in percentage — were all in the 81st percentile or better. He was also top-three on the Blackhawks: he trailed only Kane and DeBrincat in zone entries per 60 (19.35) and controlled zone entries (12.62). Dach was behind Kane and, interestingly, Henrik Borgstrom in success percentage (65.3 percent). The only area Dach could stand to improve when it comes to zone-entries is creating more scoring chances after an entry: his per 60 rate (2.57) was just slightly below league average. That latter data point lines up with what we’ve seen often from Dach on the ice: he can enter the offensive zone well, but he doesn’t know what to do once he’s there.
Exiting the defensive zone was another strength for Dach. His rate of zone exits per 60 minutes via passes (7.11) was in the top 20th percentile in the league, similar to his zone entry numbers. His carry-out numbers are low, although that was a team-wide issue because the Blackhawks’ system did not have forwards carry the puck out of the zone if possible. Dach also had excellent puck retrieval numbers: his defensive zone retrievals per 60 (10.27) and those leading to zone exits per 60 (5.53) were also in the 80th percentile or better for the league — and in the top three on the Blackhawks. Those numbers may seem high considering Dach didn’t like to physically battle for pucks – his forechecking numbers were just below average — but he made up for that with smart stick-work and strong positioning after a recovery.
It’s harder to quantify defensive impact, but one area the Blackhawks were better in terms with Dach on the ice was shot suppression, both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. At 5-on-5, he had the fourth lowest shots against per 60 rate (29.87) and the sixth-lowest rate of scoring chances against per 60 (28.11). These numbers are especially good when he played in a lower-line role — as expected — but he positively impacted top-six players like DeBrincat and Kane when playing with them, a net positive of two to four shots against per 60, respectively. Dach’s shot suppression numbers were also very strong for the Blackhawks when on the penalty kill: among players who skated at least 30 seconds per game on the PK, he was second only to DeBrincat in shots against per 60 (47.89) and scoring chances against per 60 (47.11) — although Dach was more PK ice time.
Dach improved in blocking shooting and passing lanes, retrieving the puck and exiting the zone quickly and efficiently, which is why Dach’s defensive WAR went from the 42nd percentile for the league in 2021 to the 56th percentile this season. His penalty kill WAR, which was already in the 85th percentile in 2021, jumped up to the 93rd percentile last season.
What Should the Blackhawks Do with Dach Now?
It all depends on what the Blackhawks think is the reason for Dach’s lack of progress offensively. Using Dach as a defensive-minded player who’s great in transition likely means he’ll ultimately end up as a useful NHL player, but the Blackhawks also have to hope for more from a No. 3 pick than what essentially amounts to a Marcus Kruger development curve.
Was Dach always just a poor selection for the No. 3 spot?
That’s possible, but it’d be a hindsight-filled assessment rather than the one from the draft. He might have been a slight reach — like, one to three spots — but Dach was highly touted pre-draft, often ranked in the top-five of his draft class, and there were reports that several teams with top-picks had him high on their draft boards. On top of that, Dach has similar probability of becoming an NHL player (to reach 200 or more games) and probability of turning into an offensive star in the NHL (0.7 or better career PPG for a forward) as Jonathan Toews did when you compare their draft eligible seasons:
Note: NHLe shows how a player’s point production in their given league would translate to the NHL over an 82 game pace.
This is not to say that Dach was ever going to be as good as Toews, just that his pre-draft potential was in line with the Blackhawks own previous No. 3 overall pick, and thus it’s not such a mistake that the Blackhawks selected Dach where they did when the information they had at the time. It’s been the time after the draft when things have unraveled.
One difference between Dach and Toews, when looking at their developmental timelines, may be part of the issue with Dach: Toews took an additional year to play in a lower league (the NCAA) before making his NHL debut. If Toews needed more development time, it’s always been a bit baffling that the same approach wasn’t taken with Dach, especially considering it’s very common for players selected third overall or later to take a year or more to impact the NHL.
2019 Draft Player Comps
And the additional development time has certainly helped others in Dach’s draft class. Of the 14 forwards from the 2019 draft that have played in at least 40 NHL games, the three players who impacted the NHL immediately after the draft all started out slowly. Hughes managed to finally find his groove this season, but Dach and Kakko are still struggling to produce. On the other hand, six other players from the 2019 have better PPG rates than Dach. The best three are Boldy, Zegras, and Caufield, who impacted the NHL officially as rookies this season after spending the better part of the last two years in the NCAA (and AHL for Zegras) while the other three also spent an additional one to two years in college or juniors.
Is this conclusive enough to say that Dach starting in the NHL too soon is the reason for his lack of progression? No, but it likely played a role.
The question then becomes a two-parter: can the Blackhawks correct Dach’s course? And, if so, how would they do that?
In the past, Sean Couturier is the go-to case study for a player who was rushed to the NHL too soon but, with some patience, ultimately reached their pre-draft projections. Couturier played in the NHL in the first season after being drafted, had injury issues, and then took until his fifth season in the NHL to get over rate of 0.5 points per game. The how portion of the question above is the harder part, but ultimately patience and playing in a better system seemed to be key in helping those players find their groove. See also: Valeri Nichushkin, although it took a change of teams for him to find the situation that suited him better.
Rushing seemed to be a theme for Dach in other ways too: he was seemingly rushed back to games before his original recovery timeline as lingering issues with his wrist shut down his season early. The theory that his wrist injury is further derailing his development is highly possible – his negative regression in terms of passing shown above could definitely be due to his wrist not being the same as before or still getting back into regular form – but all the more reason Bowman and the Blackhawks should have been more cautious with his recovery.
Ultimately, Davidson has to determine what is the cause of Dach’s stagnation and whether the Blackhawks should invest in correcting it. Some players just never reach the projection they had pre-draft — for example, Nail Yakupov. While Dach has shown flashes of skills and attributes that can be useful in the NHL — even this season, such as his transition prowess — we just haven’t seen enough of that to really know what’s going to happen in the future. Dach is only 21, though, and there’s no risk in keeping him on a cheap contract for a few more years to see if he can turn his career around.