One day after center Kirby Dach made his surprise return to the Blackhawks’ lineup Saturday, coach Jeremy Colliton made his plans for him this season abundantly clear.
”He’s going to play a lot for us,” Colliton said Sunday. ”He’s going to be hopefully a big part of the success we’re able to have.”
In other words, Dach’s playing time won’t be limited. His right wrist has been cleared by doctors and won’t be a hindrance, and the coaching staff won’t shelter him.
The Hawks are prepared to ride Dach, 20, as far as he proves able to take them. And that’s an exciting opportunity for them and for their soon-to-be cornerstone player.
”There’s still areas that I want to improve on as a player, whether it’s in the faceoff dot or playing down low…or in the neutral zone,” Dach said Saturday. ”Overall improvement on my game each and every day is where I want to go.
”We’re right in the mix of things, and we want to be in that playoff spot. It’s gonna be a fight till the end. We’ve got to find a way to bring it each and every night.”
Dach centered Mattias Janmark and Dylan Strome on the third line Saturday, then Janmark and Patrick Kane on the first line Sunday.
Where exactly he’ll slot into the lineup for the rest of this season will be determined in time. Colliton said Dach’s return provides flexibility with the forward lines, which will allow him to ”see how it all shakes down here over the next few weeks.”
Whether Dach ends up officially being designated the first-line center, however, makes little difference. During the Hawks’ dynasty era, they were clearly Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith’s team, even when Toews and Kane weren’t together on the first line or when Keith technically found himself on the second pair.
During this old-core-to-new-core transition season, Dach will be given as long a leash as he needs — regardless of the nominal lines — to prove the Hawks are his team now.
Defensively, Dach is already elite. The combination of his physical strength, rangy frame, stick use, positioning and hockey intelligence makes him extremely good off the puck. As his familiarity with the NHL continues to grow, he might become a legitimate Selke Trophy contender in the future.
Offensively, Dach’s skating stride, north-south style, vision and puckhandling skills give him the tools to become elite. His execution — shooting and passing — aren’t at that level yet, but it’s likely they’ll get there. His immediate placement on the top power-play unit Saturday showed the Hawks’ confidence in his offensive potential.
”[He’s] a center who skates extremely well and is excellent defensively,” Colliton said. ”[He] comes up with a lot of loose pucks, wins a lot of 50-50 [battles] and, obviously, he’s growing into a productive, skilled offensive player for us.”
Looking purely at the numbers, outsiders might have a tough time understanding the Hawks’ sky-high projections for Dach. He didn’t score that much (23 points in 64 games) during his rookie season in 2019-20, although he averaged only 14:16 of playing time.
The playoffs were when Dach demonstrated his imminent stardom. He scored six points in nine games as his ice time jumped to 19:24, and his improvement in the four months between March and July 2020 was eye-popping.
That’s what makes Dach’s return this spring so compelling. By May, when this regular season ends, nine months will have passed since the 2020 playoffs.
”It’s important for his development to get [to] playing games,” Colliton said. ”He’s had tremendous growth over the past 18 months or so. But certainly when you’re rehabbing, it’s not as great for your development as [it is when] you’re playing NHL games — and playing a lot.”
How big a leap has Dach taken since August 2020? We’ll find out in the coming weeks, but it’s tempting to imagine a stretch run in which he puts the Hawks on his back and carries them into the postseason.
If that’s not how it plays out, it’ll be understandable. Dach is still only 20 and is coming off wrist surgery. But he will be given the opportunity to do so.