By now, most readers here I suspect are of the opinion that the best way to get value at the draft is to look for small but skilled guys who are underrated at the NHL draft. It’s a model that Dubas clearly has followed in his time running the Leafs’ drafts as GM. The notion is that bigger players are easier to overrate, because they can use their size to dominate much more mixed competition, when they can’t do that once they get to the NHL and everyone is bigger, faster, more skilled, and stronger.
The other issue is that bigger players tend to have more issues skating. In order to be an elite skater, there’s a lot of moving parts you have to master and that’s just harder when your limbs are longer. It’s not impossible, just a bit more difficult for them. There’s also an assumption that bigger players don’t work on high end skills as much, because they don’t need them as they grow up. Because they’re bigger, they can get away with simpler plays and simply being bigger and stronger. Whereas smaller players have to sink or swim: they’re getting no breaks with their size, so they have to adapt by becoming better skaters, more skilled, etc.
Those are the stereotypes anyways. The truth is that, sometimes, being bigger is better and there’s no guarantee that they lack for skill. Oftentimes, they may develop a bit slower than other players just because they have to constantly adapt to their own body and size as they grow. Fine tuning their coordination is not something that’s easy to do, but not every big player fails to do it. Auston Matthews is a big guy who has the best shot in the NHL and can dangle in a phone booth. And while I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that Colton Dach will not be anywhere near the tier of players that Matthews is, I can also tell you that I still find him very interesting as a prospect.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Colton Dach is a 6’4”, 205 lb forward that plays in the WHL for the Saskatoon Blades. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the brother of Kirby Dach, who the Blackhawks drafted 3rd overall back in 2019. While Colton is not the same level of player that Kirby is, he took a nice step forward this year in a pandemic-shortened season for his draft year.
Colton was draft to the WHL back in 2018, after scoring 22 goals and 69 points in 30 games at the CSSHL U15 level. While those numbers are very nice, and good for 6th in the league, he finished behind other top prospects for this year’s draft (or next year’s):
- Dylan Guenther (consensus top 10 pick): 103 points in 30 games
- Matthew Savoie (consensus top 5 pick in 2022 draft): 97 points in 30 games
- Logan Stankoven (potential first round pick): 90 points in 30 games
- Cole Sillinger (consensus first round pick): 83 pointsi n 30 games
- Sean Tschigerl (good mid-round pick like Dach): 70 points in 30 games.
So Dach did well, but was clearly in a lower tier than other top prospects for his age/level. That trend continued through other levels, until he broke into the WHL as a rookie last season. He had 11 goals and 29 points in 62 games for Saskatoon, which is respectable for an WHL rookie but also clearly behind his peers once more. Guenther had 59 points in 58 games, Stankoven tied for the rookie lead in goals with 29, and Sillinger had 53 points in 48 games.
Part of that was opportunity, as Dach played more of a depth role for a strong team with lots of veterans above him. Part of it was also purely development, as by all accounts he was not ready to take a higher role from anyone. This year, with most of those veterans having aged out of junior, Dach was played mostly on their top line and powerplay unit with Tristen Robins. He also had some noteworthy improvements in his game. As a result of the improvement and opportunity, Dach finished his draft year with 11 goals and 20 points in 20 games, with 7 powerplay points and only 3 secondary assists. he actually finished tied for fourth in the WHL among other draft eligibles:
- Dylan Guenther: 2.00 ppg
- Eric Alarie: 1.05 ppg
- Caedan Banker: 1.05 ppg
- Colton Dach/Sean Tschigerl/Trevor Wong: 1.00 ppg
It is worth noting that some players, like Logan Stankoven, played too few games to consider in that list, but having point-per-game pace in your draft year is quite good. Some of that production is due to playing with two very good D+1 players in Robins and Crnkovic, both who had more points than Dach, but he also earned his production and fit in well with that line.
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 73rd
- Will Scouch: 69th
- Scott Wheeler: 77th
- Elite Prospects: 86th
- Dobber Prospects: Unranked
- Smaht Scouting: 73rd
THE GOOD: PLAYMAKING, SMART, USE OF SIZE
I watched two games of Dach’s from this season. The first game, he had two goals (both even strength) and a primary assist on the powerplay. He was noticeable almost every shift I watched him, and could have easily had another goal and two other assists from the chances he got, or the chances he set up. The other was a zero point, minus three game where he was playing as one of the team’s top centers before Tristen Robins re-joined the team from his AHL stint. I chose one good and one bad game to get an idea of where he excels, and where he struggles.
The good news is that there was a lot that I saw in Dach that I liked. When he was playing well, even in the bad game, he was a smart playmaker who knew how to use his size to his advantage. And I don’t mean that he was throwing tons of hits and knocking everyone over. I mean he knew how to use his body positioning to protect the puck, draw defenders to him to open a passing lane, then sling a pass to an open teammate for a dangerous scoring chance. He could be a menace cycling the puck down low, keeping a single defender off of him with ease until help came, which is when he would move the puck.
He was also clever in using his size to take up space, both offensively and defensively. In the offensive zone, he’d set little picks to slow down the defenders from getting around him, or to open a passing lane for his teammates. He’d be good at setting himself in front of the net in a way that left himself open to receive a pass or deflect/tip a shot or pass around the goalie. In the defensive zone, he was good at making switches to make sure no one was left open, shoulder checking constantly, and using his size to block off wide lanes. It forced the other team to take wider shots or more difficult passes that he could block or deflect.
He also showed a good wrist shot that could pick the top corner and have some power to it. It’s not an elite shot, at least not yet. He could be slow to shoot at times, and I got the impression he usually looked to make a pass before he decided to take the shot himself. In the good game I watched, he scored a goal off a faceoff. It was a scrum for the first moment, and he put himself into the faceoff circle and blocked two opposing forwards from getting around him. This helped the center have more time and space to retrieve the puck and pass it back to the point. The defenseman shot it, which got blocked but fell right to Dach, who was looking away from the net. He turned and fired a quick wrist shot around the other team’s defenseman and perfectly picked the top corner.
The other play I want to call out led to his second goal. The puck was in the defensive zone, and Dach’s teammate rung the puck around the boards in a bit of a desperation play. There was a race to get to the puck first between Dach and the other team’s defenseman. Dach was not necessarily as fast, but he angled his body to cut off the opponent and pin him against the boards as he got to the puck first. At the same time, he made a really clever one handed tip-pass to a teammate who had built up speed. It led to an easy zone exit, but also a partial two on one. Off that chance, Dach scored from a point shot as he caught up to the play.
From Joel Henderson at Future Considerations on Dach’s ability as a playmaker:
His playing style and mannerisms actually remind me of Matthew Tkachuk a lot. It’s uncanny. Dach is tremendous at touch passes, quick passing to exit the zone, and manipulating passing lanes both in stride and at a stand still. He uses his reach and control of the puck from infront to his hip to open passing lanes both on the forehand and backhand. His ability as a playmaker is as a ‘play continuer.’ His head is up so he finds teammates so well, and regains possession down low; moving the puck to an open linemate very quickly. Often he turns his back to protect possession too. When possession is gained in the o-zone, he’s often net front or side of the net, looking for tips, loose pucks, or being a pest for the vision. He is really quick to gather rebounds or just spinning to get a puck on net quickly. This style of play can be very valuable at the pro level and I’ll be continuing to evaluate just how much finesse there is in his game.
From Donesh Mazloum at Future Considerations, on his puck control and size:
His puckhandling prowess is the attribute that most mirrors his older brother as he plays with a long stick and showcases supreme control despite holding both hands high up the shaft. This control paired with his reach and size allowed him to create a lot of time and space along the wall for himself and teammates however at this point he doesn’t show a ton of dynamism or creativity. His protection skills, hand eye coordination, and ability to maintain possession are positive attributes however I’d love to see him attack through gaps more consistently.
Colton Dach - @BladesHockey— Puck Preps Western Canada (@PuckPrepsWestCa) April 5, 2021
In a #2021NHLDraft year where size is prevalent in the WHL, Colton brings an element of finesse when using the fullness of his reach. Pulling the puck to his forehand to get a better shot angle like this is a wonderful tool to have in the toolkit. pic.twitter.com/wOOdZvoVx0
From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic, on his development, puck handling and shot:
This year, some more assertiveness started to develop and he looked a step quicker from a standstill than I expected (though more work still needs to be done there). Dach plays an impressive give-and-go game with above-average hands and a hard shot (though I also think he could work on getting it off a little quicker and mixing in some more variety to his shooting stance/footwork).
THE FLAWS: SKATING, HIGH END SKILL
All that said, Dach does have his flaws. There are two issues that I can see Dach having at higher levels that will limit his ability to make the NHL. First, his skating and his ‘pace’. As a skater, I’ve read that he got a lot better this year compared to past seasons, but he still doesn’t look like a great skater. To me it looked like he was just as good a skater as most other players on the ice, so just average. He could build up a good top speed, but was not quick on his acceleration. He could make some quick cuts or changes of direction, but not at a very high level or all the time, and it would often lead to him losing balance.
The other issue is that he never necessarily looked to be trying to skate that fast. I’m not at all saying he was ever lazy, but I’d say his method of moving around the ice at any given time was more smooth than explosive. I wouldn’t necessarily say he was passive, but he wasn’t very aggressive either. Part of that, I think, is that he was very smart with his positioning, so he was often already where he needed to be than needing to catch up. But I also do think there were times that called for him to go for it, and he either couldn’t or just didn’t. In his bad game, this was much more noticeable as other players could get by him or stay on him enough to disrupt many of the defensive or offensive play he tried.
From Donesh Mazloum, again:
While I waffle from viewing to viewing on if he has the skill to create offence at the next level, one area where I am confident that improvements are needed is in his skating stride. He has already progressed a fair deal in this regard as his straight-line speed and leg extension through his stride have come a long way however he still takes extremely wide turns when changing directions and his footwork in transitions as a whole is quite clunky. His mechanics and weight load are generally sound so with some refinement I think his skating abilities will be serviceable however he it’s an area he’ll need to focus on.
The other issue is that while he does have some very useful skills with handling the puck, making plays with his passing, or using his wrist shot, none of them are at an elite level. You can see it in comparison to higher end prospects he played with or against. His strengths may be enough for him to make the NHL if he were a better skater, but without the skating I am not sure they’re good enough to carry him on their own. He either needs to make them elite, or become a better skater.
If there’s good news about this, it’s that I think he has an interesting foundation to work on. Him making big improvements this year is good to hear, but there’s more work to be done in both these areas.
So why is a 6’4” forward who managed a point per game pace in a top junior league, who is also the brother of an elite prospect, being ranked as a consensus third round pick? Some of it is his past performances not leading to a lot of hype. He was good, but never great. He never made any top international tournaments for Canada like his brother did. He never came close to matching the production of his peers who are now top prospects in this same draft. He never played a top role for his CHL team, until this year. And even this year, he was not leading his line or his team. He played a very good support role. That sort of profile is, simply put, what you should expect out of a second or third rounder.
But at the same time, big forwards who are skilled, smart and can play as a very good supporting role on his line has value. He has some flaws that are more concerning for being able to succeed at higher levels, but for a third rounder that’s someone I do not mind rolling the dice on to see if the Leafs’ development team can improve those areas.
I would not want the Leafs to pick Dach outright with their second round pick and 57th overall. There will be better players available. But if the Leafs trade down with that pick? I’m more than happy to get someone like Dach + Koivunen/Johnson/Zellweger/Martino. His mix of size and skill, and being able to play a supporting role on a top line, are pretty exciting for a third round pick. Especially when he’s made big improvements this season, which could be a sign of a later development curve and better adapting to using his body at its final size.