Coming into last season, there were a lot of people (myself included) who felt that Carolina's highly touted forward prospect, Zac Dalpe, would make his mark in the NHL and possibly contend for the Calder Trophy. That obviously didn't happen and it has left a lot of people frustrated with Dalpe's progression and wondering when he will take that next step. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding Dalpe, his skill level and his supposed "ceiling" and the fact that he hasn't made the jump to the NHL as quickly as most were hoping now has many assuming that he will not amount to much as a pro.
It seems that players are breaking into the NHL at younger ages every year and the Hurricanes have two major examples of that recently with Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. When you compare Dalpe's production in the NHL to those two, he looks weak and it may cause some people to question his development. However, before you start making assumptions about Dalpe's future and where his development is at, there are some things that you need to remember.
1. Zac Dalpe is not Jeff Skinner. The latter is an all-world talent who was an elite goal-scorer in the OHL. Dalpe can develop into a very good player in the NHL but he is not at Skinner's level and likely never will be so there is no sense in comparing the two.
2. Dalpe is only 22 and is not an "over-ager" by any means. Last season was only his second year of playing professional hockey.
3. Dalpe MADE THE TEAM out of camp the last two seasons, which were the only two years that he was under contract.
What's to say that Dalpe can't make the team this year and possibly stick around for the entire year? The opportunity for him to do so is still open and he has a very good chance to make the team again this year with the Hurricanes having holes in the top-six and on the third line. Dalpe played only 16 games in the NHL last year and didn't exactly light up the score sheet in the AHL either but despite that, he showed some signs of promise in both leagues and could be poised to become a full-time NHL-er next season.
Dalpe may not be the star that many hoped he would turn into, but he still has a promising future ahead of him and has a stronger chance of being a full-time NHL-er next season than some may think.
When looking at Dalpe's current body of work in the NHL, there is not much to fawn over. He's played 31 total games, has scored 4 goals and only 7 points while playing sheltered minutes. His underlying numbers during that time haven't been very good either so you could say that the kid has already gotten his shot and hasn't proven much. That might be what some are thinking, but jumping to that conclusion isn't fair when you look at the kind of minutes and linemates Dalpe has been given.
Dalpe is projected to be a top-six forward and is more known for his scoring and play-making skills. When a prospect is called up, it makes the most sense to put him in positions that he can succeed in which so in Dalpe's case, it would make the most sense to put him with some offensively capable linemates and possibly give him some powerplay time if possible. Unfortunately, he hasn't been given many opportunities to play in those situations.
I have gone through all of Dalpe's NHL games, listed his time on ice, how much of it was spent on the powerplay, his most frequent linemates in said games, the number of shots on goal he had and his scoring chance & corsi differentials. This should give us a better idea of what Dalpe's done in the NHL. In addition to that, I have highlighted the games where he wasn't playing on the fourth line to see how many times he was put in positions that he could succeed in.
Dalpe was given non-fourth line minutes in only three games in the 2010-11 season but he wasn't very impressive in that small sample either, so his first year in the NHL wasn't terribly promising. However, he wasn't given much of an opportunity this year either as he spent most of his time in the NHL glued to the fourth line with marginal NHL-ers like Troy Bodie, Patrick O'Sullivan and Ryan Carter or other call-ups like Drayson Bowman. Basically, Paul Maurice stuck Dalpe with whoever was at the bottom of the depth chart and barely let him play more than 10 minutes a game. Dalpe may have been impressive enough to make the team out of training camp but using him as a fourth liner doesn't do much for his development and if he wasn't ready for the top-six (or even the top-nine) then he should have started the year in the AHL. That is the impressive I got from Dalpe's first 15 games, at least.
The next season brought a lot of promise, though as Dalpe had a very good season and playoff performance with the Charlotte Checkers and it seemed like he could make the NHL and earn more of a chance from the coaching staff this time. Well, one of those ended up being true.
Dalpe, once again, made the team out of camp but was used predominately on the fourth line for most of his time in Raleigh. In his first nine games, he wasn't able to drive the play, create offense or do much of anything but he wasn't given much of a chance then either. He was being used on the fourth line because Maurice had no one else to use in that spot, which is somewhat ridiculous when you think about it. Again, playing a guy with high offensive upside on the fourth line does little to no good for their development and they are almost better off in the AHL where they will likely get more minutes. It was also revealed that Dalpe was playing through an injury for most of the first month of the season, so it made even less sense to have him in the lineup only to play fourth line minutes. I liked a lot of the things that Paul Maurice did for this team, but the way he handled the ice time for some of the younger players was very questionable.
You'll notice that Dalpe was given more ice time in his last seven games and was given better linemates. He had 16 shots on goal in those seven games and was on ice for two more scoring chances than he gave up. This isn't blowing away his competition by any means, but he was much better when he was given better linemates and more ice time. As you could probably guess, this seven game period was after Kirk Muller took over and he as a bit more generous with how he gave ice time to call-ups from Charlotte.
Dalpe only got to play seven games under Muller but it is worth noting that he was initially recalled on an emergency basis in late December when Patrick Dwyer got hurt and had to go back down once he was healthy. He got to play a couple more games in late January but sent back down and stayed in Charlotte for the rest of the season. Some thought that he would get another chance when Chad LaRose was injured in early-February but Muller opted to use Derek Joslin on the fourth line instead and he had to this to say about the possibility of calling someone up to replace LaRose.
"To just bring a young kid up and just plop him in ... if he doesn't deserve it, then he doesn't deserve it," Muller said. "I'd rather put a kid in like Joslin who's worked hard every day. He's kept his mouth shut, he's worked hard every day and been professional. He can play defense, if we need him."
This may sound bad at first but remember that LaRose was playing on the fourth line during this time and the Canes were already using other Charlotte call-up Jerome Samson in a top-six role. Drayson Bowman was also being used in a top-nine role during the time, too so Dalpe (or one of the other young players) was going to get restricted minutes if he was called up. Muller wasn't going to call up a kid like Dalpe or Boychuk to stick him on the fourth line just because he needed a forward, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Playing on the fourth line didn't help Dalpe under Maurice and it certainly wouldn't work under a new coach. Charlotte was also making a playoff push at the time and was losing forward depth because of the many injuries occurring with the Canes, so taking Dalpe away from the Checkers to play fourth line minutes on the Canes would just hurt the organization overall.
In other words, Muller totally gets it. It'll be interesting to see what he can do with a full training camp working with some of the younger players.
Going back to Dalpe, his boxcar stats in the AHL aren't terribly impressive either (32 points in 56 games) and his NHL equivalency projects him to just 21 points in a full NHL season but let's think about this for a minute. Goals and points are luck-driven for the most part and are not always the best way to judge how effective a player is. Let's say that an otherwise mediocre player had a season in the AHL where he shot at 15% on 160 shots. He would be projected to be a much more successful player than one who produced double the amount of shots in the same amount of games but had a much weaker shooting percentage. It shows that while NHL Equivalency Rates are a helpful too, they can be misleading when not given the appropriate context.
Thanks to Stephen Cooper of Habs Eye on the Prize, we can add more context into these projections by looking at how a player's shot rate in the AHL would project at the next level. Cooper discovered that players in the AHL are expected to keep .56 of the shots they create at the AHL level in the NHL and if you look at his chart, you'll see that Dalpe is one of the 10 best players in the AHL at getting shots on net. He produced well over 3 shots per game, which shows that he was very active offensively and was at least getting himself involved in the play more than others. This gives some more hope for Dalpe in the future and that he can be a successful player in the NHL. It doesn't guarantee that Dalpe will be an impact player in the NHL but it gives us a some more hope that he can take the next step sooner rather than later.
Will it be next year? Hopefully. He and Jeremy Welsh will likely compete for the third-line center position and that would be a good starting point for both players to begin next season. Dalpe will likely get his chance this upcoming season and while expectations might be lower for him than they previously were, there should be a lot more confidence him to at least become a full-time NHL-er.