The paths of Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko in the lead up to this year’s NHL Entry Draft have dominated storylines. The curious mix of the next nine or so selections has taken a secondary role in draft coverage, while the seemingly annual debate of a top-ranked skilled winger versus a top-ranked six-foot-something centerman has been non-existent. The narrative that the NHL has already crossed the threshold of skill over size was challenged by the 2019 Stanley Cup finalist, Bruins, and Blues. Once again, the book on what the appropriate winning recipe for a champion seems to be under revision.
The draft will be littered with players who aim to be worthy of both arenas, perhaps none more so than projected top-10 pick, Kirby Dach.
The Saskatoon Blades 18-year-old center is a towering specimen with a broad skill-set. His 6-4 frame makes him the tallest player who will challenge for a spot in the first ten picks of the draft, and while his size is an intriguing asset, Dach brings much more in terms of on-ice value to the draft floor.
When intimidation goes out the window after his junior career is complete, the St. Albert, Alberta native will rely on his innate ability to find and distribute the puck to open ice. He provides his teammates with reliable puck support on the transition as well – the way that historical Frank J. Selke winners have done. That’s not to say, however, that Dach has mastered the entire toolbox of a prototypical two-way center. In fact, on the contrary, Dach has been guilty of inconsistencies and lapses in judgment throughout his two seasons with the Blades. From my perspective, the most important factor in Dach’s potential is determining how many of those instances can be attributed to carrying an excessive load on an otherwise questionably skilled roster.
Dach’s skating shines at high speed, especially on the breakout and while transitioning through the neutral zone. His brain, legs, and hands all fire in balanced harmony, making plays like this one relatively commonplace.
As is typical, a big ship takes a little longer to change direction. Maneuvering his body through tight spaces in the offensive zone takes longer, and while he’s been able to overcome it by himself in the WHL, tighter defenses would pose a threat to his wide turns. While it may be challenging in Saskatoon, learning to trust his teammates in the offensive zone should quickly mask that shortcoming.
A trait that one might not expect to be at the forefront of Dach’s skillset is his shot. Sadly, it’s largely underutilized, and though that could simply be interpreted as wise shot-selection, it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see more of this…
Despite his riveting shot being somewhat of a rarity, Dach maintains his goal scoring aptitude by way of a strong net-front presence. His timing and reflexes allow him to break off from defenders at the right time, while his confidence and strength give his high-danger opportunities high-conversion rate.
Generally considered a strong playmaker, Dach’s strength in setting up plays stems more from his spacial awareness and physical strength than any exceptional passing ability. Although he’s certainly shown indications of high-level vision and pass accuracy, he’s also been caught on the wrong side of distributing and receiving the puck.
It’s clear in watching Dach, that his preference is to transition the puck himself, as opposed to making medium-length passes on the breakout. While it may be a consequence of his environment, being gun-shy hasn’t helped him to improve in the passing while skating department. Short passes in the offensive zone seem to pose no issues for Dach, and although he’s shone as the net-front man in an umbrella power play configuration, his man-advantage distribution is on par with other top-ranked forwards.
One way that Dach highlights his playmaking is by perfecting his deception on the rush. It’s a technique that has become more prominent in the professional ranks in recent years and something that, as a young player is quite impressive. Here’s an example of how Dach uses his eyes and body language to create offense:
In contrast to his skating ability, Dach’s puck skills in tight spaces are a crucial tool for his success. Fast on his feet, creative and strong, the Blades center can often be found drawing penalties with several defending players obstructing in order to oppress his long reach and quick hands. It’s a dangerous combination that allows Dach to create a window of opportunity where, more often than not, he distributes the puck to the open ice that he’s just cleared.
He’s become known for several highlight reel goals where that same creativity is put on display at high speed, although it’s unlikely that this sort of opportunity will be afforded to him at the next level. While his size and strength are an asset in most instances, there’s a possibility that his size becomes a hindrance when trying to slip through tight spaces of top-tier defenders.
All things considered, puck handling is a strength of Dach’s and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to adapt this strength to a more challenging opposition.
In my opinion, the best way to generalize Dach’s biggest weakness is by labeling him an inconsistent defender. The line-change made by Brad Marchand in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final that led to Alex Pietrangelo’s goal reminded me of countless lapses in effort that I’ve seen in Dach. It’s a frustrating reality that has been recognized by several scouts, but a fixable one. In the heat of the moment, I’ve considered Kirby to be a selfish player, but I’ve come to realize that he’s probably more of a leader than I had given him credit for. A handful of critically bad decisions, paired with an exceptional individual skill set led me to a conclusion that I’ve now stepped back from.
That being said, it remains a flaw that as a projectable top-line center, Dach will absolutely need to work on correcting. Before he can be given the opportunity that will allow him to reach his full potential, he’ll need to show whoever decides to draft him, that he will be reliable at every corner of the ice, and that if mistakes are made, his effort to rectify the said mistake, will never be questioned.
For me, it’s been easy to be skeptical of Dach. We haven’t even discussed how his draft stock has fluctuated through the course of his draft campaign, which it has. In reviewing tape for this Deep Dive, I was forced to consider some of the factors at play that I previously hadn’t, factors that have made me less of a skeptic than in the heat of the moment. The bottom line is that I’ve seen this player make a fair number of mistakes live, in addition to a handful of highlight reel plays.
I think it’s undeniable that he has a highly sought after toolbox. Eliminating the variable of his numerous linemates, however, will be a major factor in where Dach is selected this Friday.