Will Zac Dalpe take the next step?

The Hurricanes need to add forward depth this summer but don't have a lot of cap space to do so. There are a lot of free agents they could sign to fill this void, but having someone from within take hold of one of the bottom-six spots could go a long way. The frustrating part is that the Hurricanes have been saying the same thing for the last few years, only for different positions. Two years ago, they hoped one of the call-ups from Charlotte could replace Erik Cole, who departed via free agency and last year, they placed hope in their prospects to round out their bottom-six. They came away disappointed both times, as not many of their younger players could make much of an impact.

A couple of players who appear to be pretty big disappointments are Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, both of whom were expect to be good top-six forwards at one point in their careers. Boychuk's future in the NHL is probably in limbo right now with him failing to make a lasting impression with three different teams but Dalpe is a more interesting case. He has made the team out of camp for three years in a row and each time, he ended up being sent down before playing 20 games. I'll agree that Dalpe wasn't impressive in his first two seasons, but I thought he made improvements this year and should have gotten more than 10 games.

It feels like the same things have been said about Dalpe after every season, though and it all relates back to him not getting enough of a chance in the NHL no matter who the coach is. That might seem like a lazy excuse for a prospect not panning out, but Dalpe's usage hasn't exactly been catering to his strengths. He was used as a fourth line plug in his first two years in Carolina and played only 10 games this past year. Using him on the fourth line is not putting him in a position to succeed and he sent down before he was given much of a shot to do anything this year. So yes, saying that Dalpe hasn't been given much of a chance with the Hurricanes is a valid argument. 

At the same time, there have been a ton of fringe NHL players who you can apply this to. The Hurricanes went through the same thing with Zach Boychuk for years and he ended up getting waived by three clubs. He was also relegated to fourth line duty under Paul Maurice and Kirk Muller had a short leash on him, as well. This same argument can also be applied to Niclas Bergfors, the former first round pick of the New Jersey Devils who had a 21-goal rookie season and completely fell off the map after that. He struggled to get top-six minutes after being traded to Atlanta, was then dealt to Florida for a minimal return and was quickly waived by the Nashville Predators the next season. All of this was despite posting solid scoring numbers relative to his ice-time. Sometimes players just aren't a fit no matter how talented they are and they don't end up amounting to much.

None of that matters right now, though. What does matter is that Dalpe is turning 24 in November and has only 41 games of NHL experience under his belt in three years. Given that he was a second round pick with solid production at the lower levels, more was expected from him by now and he will probably have to make the jump to the NHL this year in order to have a future with the organization. The window is still open for him, but it's much smaller than it was before and those who go onto have great futures in the NHL usually make their debuts at a younger age than 23-24. This should decrease the expectations for him at the NHL level, but it doesn't mean that his future is completely hopeless. Dalpe becoming a third liner instead of the scoring forward would not be the worst thing in the world for the Hurricanes, especially since they have holes to fill in their bottom-six right now.

There have been some quality NHL-ers who did not make their debuts until their mid-20's. What are the chances that Dalpe could be one of them? Find out after the jump.

A good way to start this off is to compare Dalpe to players who were drafted in the same year as him since that will give us an idea of where he stands now. As of right now, he is well behind the likes of Adam Henrique, Zack Smith, Matt Martin and Derek Stepan, whose careers are all off to a great start. He is also behind players such as Zac Rinaldo, Brandon McMillan, Andrei Loktionov and Matt Calvert, as these four have also been able to found some sort of niche in the NHL while Dalpe hasn't been able to find much of a place. Seeing how all of these players were drafted in the second round or later, that's not a terribly encouraging sign for his development.

However, there are some interesting interesting when you look at some players from the 2008 class who have played the same amount of NHL games as Dalpe. The most interesting of which being Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings. Ask almost any hockey fan about Nyquist and you'll hear about his potential and how he will be a solid NHL-er someday. Meanwhile, Dalpe has played just as many games in the same time span with a slightly lower scoring rate and most of the questions surrounding him are when he is ever going to "put it together." Why is this?

For one, their situations are a little different because Nyquist spent three years at college while Dalpe was signed after his sophomore season. Nyquist is also more talented than Dalpe based on his numbers at the lower levels. Dalpe was a very good player in college & the AHL, but Nyquist was a star & scored at a point-per-game rate at every league he has played in. The expectations for Nyquist are also somewhat lower than they were for Dalpe since Detroit took him in the 4th round, whereas Dalpe was selected in the second round. 

Either way, Dalpe & Nyquist's NHL track record are on roughly the same level right now since they are both 24 and have played 40-41 games. They aren't the only ones who have been in this position before and there have been plenty of regular NHL-ers who weren't in the league full-time until their mid-20's. This leaves plenty of hope for them to make the league full-time. Nyquist appears to have a bright future, but how optimistic should Canes fans be about Dalpe? He can still become an NHL-er, but if he breaks into the league as a 24 year old it decreases the chances of him having a longer career. He is closer to his "prime years" now and might have trouble staying in the league if he can't be useful defensively or maintain a strong scoring rate. That seems to be the case for a lot of players, at least.

Although, if you compare Dalpe to other forwards who had 39-43 games of NHL experience before their 24th birthday, you get a pretty wide range of possibilities.

Player Drafted Year GP G Pts Years P/G NHL GP NHL G NHL Pts NHL P/6
Mark Greig 1990 1993 43 1 13 3 0.302 125 13 40 0.320
Jeff Nelson 1991 1996 43 1 8 5 0.186 52 3 11 0.212
Cal O'Reilly 2005 2011 42 5 16 6 0.381 113 13 41 0.363
Mark Smith 1997 2001 42 2 4 4 0.095 377 23 70 0.186
Andrew Peters 1998 2004 42 2 2 6 0.048 229 4 7 0.031
Chris Thorburn 2001 2006 41 3 6 5 0.146 468 34 86 0.184
Brian Savage 1991 1995 40 13 20 4 0.500 674 192 359 0.533
Brandon Bochenski 2001 2006 40 8 17 5 0.425 156 28 68 0.436
Jason Podollan 1994 2000 40 1 6 6 0.150 41 1 6 0.146
Yannic Perreault 1991 1995 39 5 13 4 0.333 859 247 516 0.601

Based on this, Dalpe could have a successful career in the mold of Yannick Perreault or Brian Savage and be a solid scoring forward. On the other hand, he could end up being a non-effective player offensively but still stay in the league for a few years as a bottom-sixer (Thorburn, Smith). The worst case scenario here is for him to end up like Jason Podollan or Jeff Nelson, who had minimal NHL careers. Either way, Dalpe doesn't project to be a star but the possibilities for him are kind of scattered going by this. 

However, this chart is a tad misleading because while these players did have the same amount of experience as Dalpe, their scoring rates were much different than the .24 PPG he has posted in his career thus far. Compare that to players who posted a similar scoring rate with 30-40 games played and we get some more specific results.

Player Drafted Year GP G Pts Years P/G NHL GP NHL G NHL Pts NHL P/6
Josh Holden 1996 2001 46 4 13 5 0.283 60 5 14 0.233
Denis Hamel 1995 2001 44 9 12 6 0.273 192 19 31 0.161
Ronald Petrovicky 1996 2001 30 5 9 5 0.300 342 41 92 0.269
Liam Reddox 2004 2009 47 5 12 5 0.255 100 6 24 0.240
Jon Sim 1996 2001 47 6 12 5 0.255 469 75 139 0.296
Shawn Bates 1993 1999 46 7 11 6 0.239 465 72 198 0.426
Juraj Kolnik 1999 2003 46 6 10 4 0.217 240 46 95 0.396
Kevin Brown 1992 1998 45 3 10 6 0.222 64 7 16 0.250
Blair Betts 1998 2004 35 3 8 6 0.229 477 41 78 0.164
Wyatt Smith 1997 2001 44 3 10 4 0.227 211 10 32 0.152

Like I said, the results here are slightly less varied and none of them are particularly great. The best case scenario for Dalpe here is for his career to go the path of Shawn Bates, who had a few decent 35-45 point seasons with the Islanders but wasn't much of an impact player overall. The rest of the pack here are either bottom-six players or those who did not have much of an NHL career at all (Brown, Reddox, Holden), so let's hope that Dalpe ends up beating these projections. I also have trouble seeing his career being similar to Blair Betts' because he is a completely different player.

It's unfortunate that Dalpe's ceiling appears to be pretty low, but something positive to take out of all this is that Dalpe still has a pretty decent chance of becoming a regular NHL player. He might end up being nothing more than a third liner, which is disappointing if you compare his draft status to that of Henrique or Stepan, but the Hurricanes don't need him to be a star at the moment. Right now, all the Hurricanes need is quality players to fill out the third and fourth lines so even if Dalpe ends up being Shawn Bates, that is not the worst thing in the world.

Again, you want to see Dalpe beat these projections given how much talent and promise he has, but I think making the NHL is more of a concern for him than becoming a star. Hopefully he can do that next year by securing one of the roster spots in the bottom-six.