Sports fans always have a different set of precedents for certain prospects in their favorite team's system. In hockey, expectations are usually higher for prospects that were taken earlier in the draft or have an impressive track record at the college and junior levels. The team's organizational depth usually plays a role in fan's expectations, as well. For example, a forward who was a point-per-game player for a couple seasons in the OHL, he might be looked upon as the crowned jewel of a team's prospect pool whereas he might be lower in the rankings on a deeper team with more prospects similar to him. On a team with a lot of organizational depth, there would be less depended on just one prospect and the expectations for him would be leveled a bit. They might even have some more patience and allow him to develop in the AHL for a few years.
The Hurricanes, unfortunately, haven't had that deep of a forward prospect pool that last few seasons so anyone who posts big college or junior numbers rises to the top of the rankings. They have a lot of good players in the system like Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Chris Terry and Justin Shugg, but not many of them have much star potential with the main exception being Jeff Skinner, who immediately jumped to the NHL after being drafted. Then there's Zac Dalpe, who is somewhat of a fan favorite and has been a lot of people's "breakout" pick for the last two years because of his talent and success at the lower levels. During those two seasons, Dalpe has made the team out of camp but failed to stick with the Hurricanes and has spent the majority of his time with the Checkers in the AHL.
This isn't the worst thing in the world because Dalpe is only 22 years old a couple of years in the AHL isn't going to stunt his development, but most were hoping for Dalpe to break into the pros much sooner. He was a second round pick but his fantastic sophomore season with the Ohio State Buckeyes got the fanbase really excited about him. Dalpe showcased his terrific goal scoring prowess and high-end offensive ability throughout his college career and carried it over to the pros with the Charlotte Checkers with a 23 goal, 57 point rookie campaign, earning him AHL Rookie of the Year honors. He has the makings of a potential top-six forward in the NHL and certainly has the talent to make that jump, so it's easy to see why people are excited about him.
Another year has gone by and Dalpe is still largely unproven as an NHL-er. He has played 31 total games and his underlying numbers have been largely underwhelming during that time. To add to that, he had a down season with the Checkers with only 18 goals and 32 points in 56 total games. It may have caused some people to label him as a bust and claim that he won't be the top-six player that many hoped he would be, but there is a possibility that this season may have just been a bump in the road for Dalpe. All players have down years and it isn't too far-fetched to say that Dalpe can rebound.
No player should be considered a "bust" at 22, but Dalpe is probably lower in the rankings now than he was a year ago, and a lot of that is because of his most recent season. Once again, he was good enough to make the team out of camp and ended up getting saddled with fourth-line minutes for the first month of the season and was eventually placed on IR after suffering the dreaded "lower-body injury" in a game against Buffalo. There was also a rumor of him fighting through a lingering injury in training camp, so Dalpe wasn't at 100% during his brief stint with the Hurricanes, and the fact that he was getting less than 10 minutes a game wasn't helping his development either.
It's also worth mentioning that Dalpe was better for the Checkers than his scoring line indicates. He was the team's second best player in shots on goal per game, and was also one of the best in the AHL in that category. His goal total did not fall off by that much, but his point total was a completely different story and likely the reason he saw such a decline in points. The Checkers shot at only 8.5% as a team last season, so it's not unreasonable to believe that bad luck attributed to the low amount of assists Dalpe had last season. This is something that will improve if Dalpe keeps playing at the level he has for the last couple of seasons. However, what fans probably care more about is whether or not Dalpe will be in the NHL full-time next season.
Dalpe has a good opportunity to do so with the team's third line center spot being available. He was good enough to make the team out of camp for two years in a row, so he can do it again but he has a little more competition this time around with Jeremy Welsh, Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk all trying to achieve the same goal. There just aren't enough roster spots to go around and Dalpe will have to do something to stand out among the rest of Carolina's prospects. He will also have to show that he is good enough to play in a top-nine role because keeping him on the team to be a fourth liner (again) isn't going to do much of anything and he would almost be better off in Charlotte.
Regardless, I think Dalpe will be an NHL-er at some point in his career. It could be next season or another year from now, but I think he is good enough to make it and is talented enough to be a contributing player in the top-nine. It's all a matter of when it happens but I think fans need to be more patient with him and his development. Am I frustrated that he spent most of last year in the AHL? To an extent, yes, but have I given up hope in him? Absolutely not. Dalpe is going to get his chances while he is under team control and we will have to wait and see how things turn out. He hasn't made the jump to the NHL as quickly as I hoped but at this point, there is little reason for me to believe that he can't become a top-nine player within the next couple years.