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Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach pressuring himself to finally live up to his potential

A year after his wrist surgery, the soon-to-be 21-year-old center said Tuesday he wants to “become the player that I know I am.”

Kirby Dach finishes 2021 with 23 points in 48 games this calendar year.
Kirby Dach finishes 2021 with 23 points in 48 games this calendar year.
Ted S. Warren/AP

Kirby Dach has been introspectively rubbing his goatee a lot lately.

As the Blackhawks’ holiday break has lengthened into a two-week pause, engulfing the end of the franchise’s chaotic 2021 calendar year, the franchise’s anointed future cornerstone has found arguably too much time to reflect on his own frustratingly fruitless year.

“I just want to become the player that I know I am,” Dach, who will turn 21 in January, said Tuesday. “It has been 2.5 years. The ups and downs, the lulls [and] the highs, it’s frustrating. It sucks.

“As much as an athlete shouldn’t be really paying attention to outside noise, it’s tough to run away from that stuff. I know I’ve got to be better. That’s all it really comes down to.”

Exactly one year ago Tuesday, he seemed to surprise him by recalling, he was undergoing surgery on the wrist he flukily broke in last year’s World Junior Championships.

His wrist feels fine now, and has since late summer. But the obstacle that recovery period shoved into his development path — limiting him to just 18 games at less-than-100% health last season and just 48 total this calendar year — has proven more difficult than expected to move on from.

“It has been a long year,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t think I’m where I should be, but that’s for me to clean up and get better at. There’s a lot left on the table, [and] there’s still a lot of season left to get to that point.”

In those 48 games, Dach tallied 23 points — seven goals, 16 assists — and won only 35.7% of his 485 faceoffs.

There are several indicators he’s playing better than it seems outwardly. He excels with offensive zone entries — 75.0% of his entries are with puck control, dwarfing the league average of 52.4%, per analyst Corey Snzajder’s data. And his passing is deceptively good, too — he averages 4.2 scoring chance assists per 60 minutes, well above the league average of 2.6, per Snazjder. He’s the Hawks’ second-best forward in both categories.

But Dach’s reputation continues to be shaped — in a negative way — by his unwillingness to shoot the puck and by his lack of overall production, partially as a result.

Expectations are so high for a third overall pick by his third season that those weaknesses simply aren’t acceptable anymore. The Sun-Times’ Dec. 18 Polling Place survey found only 58.9% of Hawks fans still believe Dach can become a first-line center, much less a Jonathan Toews-esque star. He hears that criticism, too.

“I never really want to be a guy that’s known [for getting] a bunch of grade-A chances and can’t score,” he said.

He insists it’s not the pressure of playing in the NHL that is getting to him, though. Instead, it’s his own — the pressure he puts on himself “to be better for the team, [for] the organization.”

As a team, the Hawks have collectively stopped overthinking and started trusting their instincts since Derek King took over. Instigating that mentality shift has been King’s biggest success as interim coach.

Dach, however, remains stuck in his own head, trying perhaps too hard to make something great happen every shift. Unlocking his immense natural talent has proven to be a difficult task. But King remains optimistic he’ll eventually break through.

“He’s his worst critic,” King said. “He’s hard on himself and takes a lot of pride in his game, which sometimes [is] hard to find in a young player. Sometimes I forget, and a lot of people forget, how [young] he is. He’s just a kid.

“It’s not like it’s an overnight thing, but it’s not going to be three or four years down the road until he figures it out. He’s figuring it out now and he’s just got to hone [his game] now. I like the way he’s going.”