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Michael Dal Colle: Defensive Specialist?

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How Michael Dal Colle has honed his NHL game to be one of the Isles’ best defensive forwards

Los Angeles Kings v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

BUST!

That might have been something you may have read about Michael Dal Colle as recently as five months ago, give or take. Heading into last summer, the 5th overall pick in 2014 had not exactly lit the hockey world on fire after his draft date. Dal Colle missed out on making Team Canada in the World Juniors twice, and once he got to the Islanders organization, saw just four pointless games at the NHL level, all in a franchise-wide disappointing 2017-18 season.

To his credit, Dal Colle worked hard on his game. And with a new regime, he started off strong with Bridgeport, ultimately making the AHL All-Star team. After a two game cup of coffee with the big club in November, Dal Colle was called up at the end of December and has since played in 13 more games for the Islanders.

This more recent sample of games has provided enough data to start to hone in on the type of player Dal Colle is. Largely paired with the veteran duo of Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov, Dal Colle has been asked to primarily play in a defensive role. Perhaps a new type of responsibility for him, but he’s done remarkably well in the circumstances.

Data as of Feb. 4, 2019

Let’s start with a straight-forward view of shot rates. Dal Colle is located high up in the top left quadrant, which indicates that he is a low event player. We can see that here as when he is on the ice, the Islanders allow just 45.05 attempts against per hour. This is far and away the best rate on the team (Martin and Clutterbuck are second and third, allowing over 51 shot attempts against per hour).

Dal Colle has a positive overall attempt share, as the Islanders are taking 49 shot attempts per hour while he’s on the ice, which nets out to a 52.12% share of total attempts heading into Tuesday’s game against Boston.

Data as of Feb. 4, 2019

We can see a similar pattern forming on high danger rates as well. Similar to overall shot attempts, Dal Colle has firmly planted himself in the top left of the chart. And once again, the Islanders are allowing their lowest amount of high danger chances against when he’s on the ice - just 7.27 per hour. Some players (Cizikas and Toews, specifically) have similarly strong defensive numbers, but Dal Colle once again tops the charts here.

His high danger attempt share is even stronger than his overall attempt share at 56.52%, though that has more volatility with only 15 total games played and only 46 total high danger chances for the Isles and their opponents when he is on the ice. Now let’s take a look and try to isolate any impact that Dal Colle is having on his linemates.

Data as of Feb. 4, 2019

In the above chart, we can see a tangible impact that Dal Colle is having on his linemates. There’s still a pretty big difference in sample size of minutes here (105 as a line versus 370 without Dal Colle), but the differences are stark.

Given the smaller sample size, let’s focus on overall shot attempts. Over time, scoring chances and high danger chances will become more stabilized but for now, they are still volatile. Regardless, by focusing in on only the first column, we can see a noticeable difference with Dal Colle on the line versus times when he is not.

Some added context also shows us that Dal Colle is being used defensively as well by Barry Trotz, as the winger has more zone starts in the defensive zone (51 D-Zone faceoffs versus 46 O-Zone faceoffs). Note that this doesn’t prove anything, but it does show some added context on how Barry Trotz seeing Dal Colle’s (and his line) role.

Summary

It’s still really early to determine what Michael Dal Colle will be at the NHL level. Though we can see that he is visibly contributing on the ice, his underlying numbers also indicate there could be something there. What does need to be made clear here is that we should not assume he will develop into the offensive dynamo that is expected of a fifth overall pick. After Tuesday’s game, Dal Colle has just 19 shots in 16 games and three points during that time frame.

Certainly, there is still room for Dal Colle to develop this part of his game. But for now, where he is really thriving is on the defensive side of the game. We can see that positionally, anecdotally, in empirically in the numbers.

Using Bill Comeau’s SKATR Viz, we can even see that Dal Colle is in the 99th percentile in team relative shot share against per hour and in the 91st percentile in team relative expected goals against. The percentiles are for the entire league, so although we’re still dealing with a fairly low sample of games, the results Dal Colle are showing on that side of the game are quite striking.

At the end of the day, perhaps a defensive specialist is not what is wanted from a fifth overall pick. It’s a fair position to take, given how difficult it is to obtain high-end elite point socrers at the NHL level. But, reality is what it is, and given how turbulent the last few years have been for Dal Colle, the current outcome (knowing there could be more upside to come) seems like a win for everyone.