When the Chicago Blackhawks stepped up to the podium at the 2019 draft, they had what was, essentially, the first decision of the night. Jack Hughes was a lock to go first overall to the New Jersey Devils, while Kaapo Kakko was basically in the same boat at No. 2 with the New York Rangers. But Chicago had options. From the outside, the most likely candidates were both big centers from the WHL: Kirby Dach of the Saskatoon Blades and Dylan Cozens from the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
The Hawks took Dach and in short order, he proved that he belonged in the NHL right away. And while Chicago is in an interesting transition period between the dynasty they were and a rebuilding squad that already has some nice building blocks, the NHL's extended 24-team field for the Return to Play tournament is giving young Hawks like Dach, Adam Boqvist and Alex DeBrincat (not to mention Calder finalist Dominik Kubalik) a unique opportunity.
Chicago will be a decided underdog against the Edmonton Oilers in their qualifying round series, but with veterans such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith still on the prowl, this is no ordinary rebuild. Dach in particular has been able to get valuable experience as a teen center, without being thrown to the wolves. And that allowed coach Jeremy Colliton to test the kid out on the penalty-kill in their exhibition game against St. Louis.
"In his first year as a young player, we wanted to make sure we eased him in," Colliton said. "For a guy like that, to play on the power play he can gain a lot of confidence; he gets the puck a little more. That was the first spot we wanted to slot him in on special teams. But as his game has developed, he has proven to be one of our best defensive players. To start using him on the penalty-kill makes a lot of sense: he's a great skater, he's got a great, long stick and reach and the biggest thing is his feel for the game. It's been a priority for us to get him some reps and his hockey sense makes it easier for him."
Dach was part of the team's PK meetings all season long, so the systems and lessons were not new to him. He also played on the shorthanded unit as a junior with Saskatoon, so there was experience at a lower level of competition. But actually getting some PK time in Chicago's only exhibition game was certainly a positive for the rookie.
"Any time you can be trusted to be on the ice in those certain situations - not even on the PK, but the power play or the last minute of each period - shows that the coach trusts you and your abilities to get a job done," Dach said. "It's a welcoming challenge."
Playing on a line with sniper DeBrincat and gritty Drake Caggiula, Dach and his compadres have a chance to really make a mark in a series where the high-end stars will look to one-up each other (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for Edmonton, Toews and Kane for Chicago). It's a short series, but depth scoring cannot be overlooked. And with Dach being born and raised in the Edmonton area, not to mention Caggiula being a former Oiler himself, they'll have all the motivation in the world to be spoilers.
"We've got a good thing going here," Dach said. "We might not have scored last night but we had chances and hopefully we are the difference-maker in the series."
Regardless of the outcome, Dach has an incredibly bright future in Chicago and the timing is excellent for the big, two-way center. Toews is an obvious veteran to look up to both on and off the ice and having such a resource will be fantastic for a kid who seems to pick things up rather quickly.
Whether or not the Hawks can pull off the upset, at least Dach and his young peers are getting into post-season action in a year where they otherwise would have been limited to regular-season duty. Because their day is coming in Chicago and it might not be too far off.