Kirby Dach is facing a looming deadline, one slowly creeping into his foreground. After seven more games, the Blackhawks must decide whether the No. 3 overall pick will stay in Chicago or spend the rest of the season in the WHL.
If Dach plays his 10th game, he’ll accrue a year on his entry-level contract, making him one season closer to restricted free agency. If he’s sent down beforehand, the Blackhawks can push his free agency back a year.
This means these next seven games could determine millions of dollars — for both Dach and the Blackhawks’ future cap flexibility. At the very minimum, it will greatly alter his career trajectory.
The whole thing is existential in nature. Even so, Dach says he’s “feeling good” about it.
”I’m not really too worried about what’s going on, in terms of where I’ll be,” Dach said Thursday morning. “I’m moreso focused on just being here and trying to make the team, and not worried about a cut off date or nine games or anything like that.
”If I so happen to get sent back, then at that time I’ll start worrying about that and focusing on that. But for right now, I’m focused on the Blackhawks and being here.”
The 18-year-old scored his first career goal against the Golden Knights on Tuesday on an inadvertent deflection off his knee, emblematic of his propensity in junior hockey to score goals by lingering around the net.
Last season, only the top three overall picks played more than nine games. The year before, just the top two picks accrued a year of service time. In 2016, only four players got more than a cup of coffee.
There’s no template for how the Blackhawks will handle this. The first two picks of the draft are typically retained for the season. The third overall pick is often the cut-off.
Dylan Strome, Dach’s linemate, has been impressed by what he’s seen thus far.
”He was good in both games,” Strome said. “He’s a good skater, he keeps moving the puck, he plays confident, so if you have those traits, it’s going to come naturally.”
Strome, also a former third overall pick, is all too familiar with Dach’s predicament. After spending seven games with the Coyotes in 2016, the team sent him back to juniors. Three years later, he’s still on his entry-level contract.
With so much on the line, the Blackhawks have been careful not to show their cards just yet.
“Let’s let it play out,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton told reporters on Tuesday. “We don’t have to make up our mind before we have all the facts. So we won’t.”
Despite the uncertainty, Dach has been soaking up every opportunity to learn from veterans like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews — guys Dach “grew up idolizing” — and adapting his game accordingly. Even if it might be for just a short while.
“It’s been good to learn from a couple of NHL superstars and future Hall of Famers and have them teach me the ropes,” Dach said. “Any time they have anything for me to come help myself out and be better, I’m obviously all ears and listening to it.”
Toews’ struggles continue
Toews has had a rough start to the season on both sides of the puck. And he’ll say it himself.
The five-time All-Star is perennially considered among the NHL’s premier defensive forwards. But he’s been one of the worst defenders in the league so far. Offensively, Toews has just two points through seven games and has yet to net a five-on-five point.
Toews has missed assignments, looked slow to the puck and hasn’t had the chances that are normally afforded to him.
”The puck’s not going in because I’m not getting chances,” Toews said Thursday morning. “Can’t just magically put it in the net if I’m not getting shots, not creating chances. Got to start there.”
For reference, at this time last season, Toews had 10 points and five goals. The 12-year veteran finished with a career-high 81 points. Though it’s been a limited sample size, he’s currently on pace for just 23 this year.
“Got to play with more energy, got to be harder on the puck,” Toews said. “Got to win some draws in the offensive zone. Getting plenty of chances down there that [I’m] just losing draws and end up going back to your own end and playing there. A lot of little things.”
Colliton thinks Toews can return to last year’s form. In order to do so, he stressed starting with improvements on the defensive end.
”It starts if we defend well, then we can get opportunities in transition,” Colliton said. “Whether that’s in D zone or whether that’s in the neutral zone or whether it’s getting on the forecheck and forcing turnovers, you create offense by forcing a turnover, and that’s our whole group. If we force more turnovers, then we have more opportunity to create. I think that’s a big part of it.”