When it comes to beginning a professional career, Zac Dalpe
couldn’t have asked for much more.
Through five games with the Albany River Rats, his first taste of the pro ranks after a two-year career at Ohio State, Dalpe already has five goals, including a three-goal performance against Syracuse on March 27.
While he's always been a scorer, the hat trick was a little surprising seeing as how he never accomplished that feat in college despite leading his conference with 21 goals this season. In his single year of junior hockey with Penticton, he managed just one during a 35-goal campaign.
“That’s one thing I didn’t see coming,” Dalpe, a center, said of his first professional hat trick. “It was one of those things where afterwards I said, ‘Did that really happen?’”
Dalpe has been pinching himself ever since he decided to leave school after his sophomore season by signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Hurricanes. The club’s second-round draft pick in 2008 described everything that’s happened since then as somewhat of a blur, particularly the circumstances that led to his Albany debut on March 20.
“I was supposed to watch a game or two first since I hadn’t skated in over a week because of final exams, but it didn’t work out that way,” he said. “Coach Daniels came up to me after the morning skate and said, ‘What do you think of getting thrown in there tonight?”
Dalpe jumped at the chance, suiting up just two days after signing his pro contract. He went scoreless in back-to-back games beginning that night but hasn’t looked back since, scoring six points in the following three games.
“It was an adjustment at first,” he said. “Right away you can see the guys are bigger and stronger and everyone is so well-positioned, but it’s a fast-paced game and I love it.”
“He’s in game shape and coming off of a good season,” said Daniels of Dalpe, who was named to the All-CCHA First Team this season. “He’s put himself in a position to do well right off the bat. He doesn’t sit back and watch. He’s jumped in with both feet and has gotten better in every game.”
Daniels has helped by putting Dalpe in a position to be successful. He has been playing with high-end offensive players since he arrived, having spent most of his time with Jiri Tlusty.
“I’m sure it was frustrating for him to have a rookie on his line,” said Dalpe.
With Tlusty having earned assists on three of Dalpe’s five goals, that is probably not the case.
In some instances, such early success could actually be detrimental to a young player who is theoretically still learning what it takes to be successful in the pros. It’s safe to say that will not be true of Dalpe, whose determination and attitude rank second to none.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable,” he said. “I’m one of those guys that always want to get better. My faceoffs were awful in that game, but no one knows that because of the hat trick.”
Think about that for a second. How many 20-year-olds will be concerned about their faceoffs after a three-goal performance? Not many, to be sure.
”There are a lot of comparisons to Brandon Sutter in terms of his approach, overall frame and the potential that’s there,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “He’s come in with expectations to do well and has even surpassed those, and that’s exciting.”
Dalpe’s determination has come from necessity, as nothing came easy for him early in his career. He’s always been a talented player, but was passed over in the Ontario Hockey League draft due to his then-5-foot-5 frame. That forced him to move across the country from his home in Ontario to play in Penticton of the lesser-tier British Columbia Hockey League.
“For me, I was the small guy that nobody wanted,” he said. “The adversity helped me a lot.”
Fortunately and amazingly for Dalpe, he’s since grown to a solid 6-foot-1 and has spent the subsequent years adding the bulk to match, weighing in at 195 pounds last fall.
“He attended two straight conditioning camps in Carolina on his own dime and put on 15 to 17 pounds of muscle from one summer to the next, which is pretty amazing,” said Karmanos. “That’s hard to do the right way.”
Dalpe’s penchant for hard work doesn’t end on the ice or in the weight room. Despite having completed just two years of college, he’s still planning to earn a degree over time, possibly in sports management.
“I still want an education, but it’s going to take a little while,” he said.
At the pace he’s on now, Dalpe should get a long look at next year’s training camp. While he cannot be recalled to the NHL over the final games of this season for contractual reasons, his big-league debut is probably not far off.
”He’s a guy that I’m sure is looking at next fall as his opportunity to make the Hurricanes, and he’s got a legitimate shot based on what we’ve seen,” said Karmanos. “He’s a good-sized kid and a smart, all around player who has shown a knack to put the puck in the net, which you can’t teach.
“We’re excited about where he is in his development, and he could very well be here next year.”
Although that is admittedly a goal of Dalpe’s, he knows well enough from past experience to not get too ahead of himself.
“Obviously I want to make the team, but right now that’s the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “I just want to do well in Albany and get better every day.”