It almost looked like it was going to be a lost season for the Chicago Blackhawks and Kirby Dach.
First, it was Jonathan Toews announcing he was going to miss the season with an undisclosed injury. Then, Dach, while preparing to captain Team Canada at the 2021 World Junior Championship, suffered a right wrist fracture in Canada's lone exhibition contest against Russia and was left out of action long-term.
But now he's back, and the Blackhawks find themselves in a much different situation than they probably expected for early April.
The Hawks are currently fifth in the Central Division, but are tied with the Nashville Predators with 38 points in fourth. Given the loss in star power for a club that was already deemed too weak to be a true threat, being ahead of Columbus and the reigning Stanley Cup finalists, Dallas, is quite the feat with just over a month left to play in the shortened regular season. If it wasn't for the Predators' outstanding run they're on now, the Hawks would be looking quite comfortable in a playoff spot thanks to some outstanding play from Patrick Kane and rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen.
Dach has just two assists in four games thus far but is quickly gaining some momentum. The Hawks threw him to the wolves against a red-hot Predators team and you could tell Dach needed a bit of time to get up to speed - so two 20-plus minute affairs is a good way to get accustomed to the action.
‘‘He’s going to play a lot for us,’’ Colliton said last Sunday. ‘‘He’s going to be hopefully a big part of the success we’re able to have.’’
Dach's career has been full of pauses, and he's only 19. His pro tenure started with a concussion at the Traverse City prospect tournament just prior to the start of training camp, only to have his rookie season stunted by the COVID-19 pandemic while finishing with just 23 points in 64 games. Dach was outstanding for the Hawks during his first playoff appearance, recording six points in nine games and was a vital reason why Chicago eliminated Edmonton in a shocking preliminary round upset. The 2020-21 season was delayed and once Dach was finally able to hit the ice again with Team Canada, a two-week quarantine during the middle of camp meant he had to sit out once again - only to break his wrist during an exhibition game.
For a veteran, they've got more experience to rebound from major setbacks. For a 19-year-old with just 76 games of pro experience heading into 2021, it's a bit more of a challenge. Dach is currently skating on the third line with Dylan Strome and Mattias Janmark, but the ideal plan would be to center a line with Kane and Alex DeBrincat. Once he's back to being comfortable again, Dach should slide his way back up, but only when coach Jeremy Colliton is ready to put the pressure back on the team's young star forward.
When watching Dach, his skating is something that sets him apart from others. He's so smooth, rarely hesitates and his quick stride allows him to win puck battles more often than not. But watching him as a rookie, it looked like his hands and shot didn't always catch up to his feet, and he'd fall apart on what should have been a scoring chance. He seemed to have worked on that prior to joining Canada at the World Junior Championship selection camp but hasn't had much time to work on that in game scenarios.
There isn't a ton of reasons to be worried about a slow start - again, check out all the setbacks he's had to face. At least with the wrist injury, it doesn't look like his stellar shot has been impacted in any way. He still looks like Kirby Dach, but getting back to his playoff form will take time.
But for Chicago's sake, hopefully it won't take too long. Chicago faces Nashville again on Saturday before a six-game stand against teams the Hawks have a step on in the standings in Dallas, Columbus and Detroit. But from there, Chicago has three games against Nashville again, one against the Lightning and another run against Carolina and Florida, all of whom currently sit head of Chicago. Too many lost points in that span, with the regular season quickly moving along, will be killer in Chicago's run to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Many expected Dach to take the next step in his development and have a monster sophomore season. His second year definitely hasn't gone to plan, but now Dach has the chance to play an integral role in Chicago's run to the playoffs. He's the high-energy, talented centerman the Blackhawks were missing this season, and the one expected to fully take the mantle away from Toews in the future.
Now let's see what he can do.