EDMONTON, Alberta — Kirby Dach grew up in suburban Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, a half-hour drive from downtown Edmonton. So naturally, he’ll have plenty of family and friends at the Blackhawks- Oilers game Tuesday night.
But the Kirby Dach those folks will see isn’t the same player they knew from this time last year, or even the same player he was just a few weeks ago.
“The improvement that we’ve seen as the year’s gone on has been really fun to watch,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said.
Although Dach’s call-up from Rockford early this season came with plenty of fanfare, Colliton was obligated to nonetheless treat Dach the same as any other inexperienced player: ease him into his role, limit his minutes and make him earn the coaching staff’s trust.
Forty-nine games into his NHL career, it’s safe to say Dach has done that. Colliton has been more effusive in his praise of Dach than for perhaps any other Hawks player.
“Below the top of the circles, he’s as good as anyone defensively right now, and that’s a huge compliment that I can give to him,” Colliton said. “He makes very good reads, he comes up with a lot of pucks, he’s heavy on the puck, and he’s able — once he does get it — to make a play to get us out of the D-zone.”
Dach’s defensive stats are elite. Among Hawks forwards, only Ryan Carpenter allows fewer opponent shot attempts per minute.
Dach’s offense is starting to come around, too. Before a goose egg Sunday in Winnipeg, he had a goal and five assists in his last five games.
Those impressive results, along with a beyond-his-years maturity and work ethic, have helped his relationship with Colliton blossom.
“I think it grows over time,” Dach said. “As a coach, it’s his job to determine who he puts out in certain situations, so if he feels comfortable leaving me out there in the defensive zone and trusts me with faceoffs, obviously he trusts that I’ll get the job done and I’ll do it the right way.”
Faceoffs are often one of the toughest aspects of a center’s transition to the NHL, and that has held true for Dach. He’s winning a paltry 35.2 percent of his draws so far. But he has become so reliable in every other regard that Colliton is lately leaving him out for faceoffs anyway, assuming he’ll manage to regain possession even if he loses the draw.
Entering the All-Star break, Dach was averaging 2.5 faceoffs per game. In the four games since, he’s averaging 7.8, including 11 last Wednesday against the Bruins and nine Sunday against the Jets.
He also has taken 10 defensive-zone draws in the last three games (winning six of them) after taking just four in his previous 12 games.
“He’s doing such a good job defensively that [on] a D-zone faceoff, to me it’s not an automatic thing that we’re going to not go with him or have to put out a second center,” Colliton said. “[In] certain situations in the game, we will, but we want him to get that experience. That’s how he’s going to get better.”
It underscores Dach’s growing importance to the Hawks. Privately, though, Colliton’s overarching message to his prized rookie has remained the same.
“It’s more about keep going and keep pushing myself to find a new level each and every day and come to the rink ready to work and learn,” Dach said. “So it’s been good.”