Canadiens GM Kent Hughes places smart bet on Kirby Dach’s potential

BROSSARD, Que.— Kent Hughes made a smart bet here, and the payoff could be considerable.

On Wednesday morning, the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens announced he signed 21-year-old Kirby Dach to a four-year, $13.45-million contract, which carries a $3.3625-million annual salary-cap hit, and there’s no question it’s much more of a wager on Dach’s potential than it is on the results the player generated in his first three years in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks.

But Dach’s potential—as a 6-foot-4, 197-pound right-handed centre who was drafted third overall in 2019—is high enough for this contract to look like a steal.

It could even resemble one through the first two years, over which Dach would’ve earned less had they been the only two years he had signed for, but it’s highly probable it will pay major dividends for the Canadiens through Years 3 and 4—with the cap expected to rise and Dach having a good opportunity to thrive in an environment both he and Hughes feel is better suited to his game than the one he was coming out of in Chicago.

On July 7, Hughes traded promising, young defenceman Alexander Romanov and the 98th pick in the 2022 Draft to the New York Islanders to acquire the 13th overall pick. He then flipped 13, along with Pick 66, to the Blackhawks to acquire Dach.

Hughes said then that, with head coach Martin St. Louis at the helm of a much deeper development team installed by Hughes and the Canadiens’ brass in recent months, Dach’s ability to reach his potential was much greater.

On Wednesday, Hughes affirmed how strongly he believes that vision will come to fruition.

“Just about every trade that we’ve done, before we do it, we take the time to do our due diligence and understand the player as a player but also as an individual, and we’re comfortable with who Kirby Dach is as a human being first and foremost and what his potential is,” he said. “There’s no such thing as being 100 per-cent certain in this business, but we believe he’s got a lot of potential, and we believe in this environment—with our group, with our coach, with our development group and with the character of our locker room—that this is a better environment for Kirby Dach. And in that environment, we’re comfortable that he’s going to achieve good things in the Montreal Canadiens organization. Do we know 100 per cent? No. But we’re prepared to bet on him.”

It looks like a big one considering what Hughes gave up to acquire Dach, what the player has produced to date—19 goals and 59 points in 152 games—and him only topping out at nine goals and 26 points in 70 games last season.

But it’s a calculated one given what Dach did to get himself drafted as high as he was—and given what he feels he can do in the offensive system St. Louis has put into place with the Canadiens.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity,” Dach said on Wednesday. “I can see the forward group here and the direction they took when Marty took over and how well they played and how free and offensive flowing the game was for them. It was quite exciting for me to get an opportunity to come here and play, and I think it’ll fit into my game and my game fits into it and, come Sept. 22, I’m excited to get things rolling and see how it all plays out.”

He could’ve signed a shorter deal and bet on himself to bank that much more down the line.

Hughes said two-, and three-year options were on the table, and Dach said that, naturally, he had to contemplate them.

But, after consulting with his agent, his family and trusted friends, Dach felt the deal he ended up signing would best enable him to do what he wasn’t quite capable of doing in Chicago.

“Just kind of figured that the four years gives me a little bit more time to grow and develop—especially with this team and where the direction is heading—and to get integrated with the guys and start to build something chemistry-wise in the locker room and build a team here,” he said. “So, I think the four-year deal really helped me out.

“In the long run, yeah, if things all go well and we’re sitting here after two years, I might be leaving money on the table. (But) at the end of the day, it’s about winning Stanley Cups; not about making a lot of money. Obviously, that comes down the road, but it’s the second thought after winning.”

Dach doesn’t have to think about anything but his play as he begins this new chapter with the Canadiens.

He said he feels 100 per-cent healthy, and if he remains that way and takes the steps he’s expected to take, he’ll come out of this contract a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, one year away from unrestricted free agency and looking at a big payday on any contract he eventually agrees to.

Injuries—most notably one to his wrist, suffered at the 2018 World Junior Championship—got in the way of Dach performing to his potential with Chicago. His inexperience at this level, how he was used by Blackhawks coaches, and a great deal of off- and on-ice turmoil within that market, were unquestionably factors as well.

But the Saskatchewan native feels that’s all behind him now.

“I think I’ve always been confident in my play, I don’t think that’s ever wavered. But coming here, it’s almost a restart for me,” Dach said. “Three years in Chicago, (there were) ups and downs. Whether it was things I control or not control, I’m in a good spot, I think, with my game.

“It was good to get out with some of the guys and skate today, and I think the biggest takeaway I have coming here is to play free and be creative and just use my instincts a little bit more; trust myself around the net, shoot a little more pucks, kind of be that dual-threat player that I want to become. And I spent most of the summer working on that. I’m just trying to break out of the last three years, put it behind me, and focus on the positives moving forward.”

If that enables Dach to produce six more points than he did last season, he’ll hit the average the nine NHL forwards making between $3.2 million and $3.5 million produced over at least 70 games during 2021-22.

The payoff for the Canadiens, should Dach exceed 32 points per season by a considerable margin, is one thing, but taking into account the natural progression of a 21-year-old with over 150 games of NHL experience also puts the risk factor into proper perspective.

It’s hard to imagine Dach will take a step backwards at this stage and, even if he stagnates and only produces marginally more than he did a season ago, this contract isn’t likely to appear like a dud at any point.

The Canadiens placed starting goaltender Carey Price in off-season long-term injury relief to clear the space necessary to get it signed and remain cap compliant. They have one last deal to get done—a contract for goaltender Cayden Primeau Hughes said appears closer to materializing—and they’ll likely have a bit of maneuvering to do on the trade market to create the financial flexibility they’d prefer to have heading into this season.

Hughes said he tried to make a trade before getting Dach signed but, without one materializing, opted to place Price on off-season LTIR to ensure Dach wasn’t coming to training camp facing lingering questions over his unsettled financial situation. With that decision, the Canadiens lost a bit more of the flexibility they’d otherwise have had they been able to clear some space and just place Price on LTIR at the start of the regular season.

But none of that impacts how Hughes feels about this deal.

“I think both sides bet on each other a little bit here,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re expecting Kirby Dach to put the Montreal Canadiens on his back in October of 2022. We’re going to create this process where he’s going to continue to grow. He’s 21 years of age.”

Together, Dach and the Canadiens are more likely make this contract look like a bargain than an albatross by the time he reaches 25 years of age.

As Hughes said, there are no guarantees. But there’s no denying he’s made a smart bet here.

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