Kirby Dach shows Blackhawks what he has become in triumphant return to Chicago

Dach has 17 points in his first 21 games for the upstart Canadiens and scored a decisive shootout winner Friday against the Hawks. Would he have experienced such a fourth-year breakout had he not been traded?

SHARE Kirby Dach shows Blackhawks what he has become in triumphant return to Chicago
Kirby Dach taunted a booing Blackhawks crowd after scoring the shootout winner Friday.

Kirby Dach taunted a booing Blackhawks crowd after scoring the shootout winner Friday.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Kirby Dach circled at center ice Friday as a chorus of boos rained down at the United Center.

Through those boos, he skated toward Blackhawks goalie Arvid Soderblom with the game on his stick as the Canadiens’ third shooter in a shootout. He scored on Soderblom, lifting the Canadiens to a 3-2 win. Then he cupped his hand around his ear, staring daggers into the crowd.

It was an ending that felt written in the stars.

In just a few months with the Canadiens, Dach has suddenly emerged as the up-and-coming star the Hawks abruptly decided last summer he’d probably never become. And he showed Friday how much he has changed. After three years of not fully capitalizing on most of his opportunities in Chicago, he confidently capitalized on this one.

“I was excited,” Dach said. “Any time you get to come back to a place you used to play and put on a show like that, it’s pretty good.

“I don’t think that’s ever changed, the confidence I’ve had in my game or anything like that. [I have the] same work ethic and same mentality. But at the same time, it does put a chip on your shoulder. You want to go out there and put your best foot forward and prove to people that you are who you are.”

Dach didn’t officially record a point Friday but still has 17 in 21 games, which puts him on pace for a 66-point season. He had just 59 points in 152 total games for the Hawks.

His analytics are also impressive. His expected-goals ratio at 5-on-5 is 51.6% with the Canadiens. With the Hawks, it was 47.3%, 38.8% and 45.6% in his three seasons.

He’s now playing wing rather than center — on the Canadiens’ first line, no less, alongside fellow young stars Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Dach said that hasn’t required any major adjustments, but it has decreased the negative impact of his faceoff struggles while seeming to unlock more offensive upside.

“He has all the tools,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said. “He thinks the game pretty well, he’s got size, he sees the ice, he wins battles, he’s got a strong stick, and [he uses] his stick defensively. He’s putting it all together here through the first quarter of the season.

“I’m not surprised to see the success he’s having. He has fit in quite well with not just the players he’s playing with, but [also] the brand that we’re trying to play here. He has been a great addition.”

Almost all the attributes St. Louis listed were evident during Dach’s Hawks days, too. He just never put it all together. But perhaps that was because of inexperience, youth or pressure rather than inability.

“There’s no way, with that much talent at [age] 21, that you’re ready to give up on anybody,” St. Louis added.

The lingering question now, and for the foreseeable future: Would Dach have had such a breakout in his fourth season if the Hawks had kept him?

The answer will never be conclusive, and the career path of forward Frank Nazar, whom the Hawks chose with the 13th overall pick they received in the trade, will affect how hotly the topic is debated.

But there are believable arguments both ways. On one hand, Dach’s self-confidence and attitude were wavering last year, to the point he might have needed the change of scenery to refresh himself. On the other hand, maybe this was always coming and the Hawks were simply too impatient.

The Canadiens and Dach don’t need to think about that, though. Initially projected to be a bottom-of-the-standings lottery contender alongside the Hawks and Coyotes, they improved to 11-9-1 with their win Friday.

Their success has been fueled by breakout or revival seasons from a number of integral players: Suzuki, Flames castoff Sean Monahan, undrafted defenseman Arber Xhekaj, backup goalie Sam Montembeault and Dach, who arguably leads that list.

“Montreal, they wanted me to be there,” Dach said. “That’s a blessing as a player, when you’re wanted. [I’m] just focused on Montreal and haven’t really thought . . . too much about not being wanted here [in Chicago].”

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