NEW YORK NY - FEBRUARY 20: Michael Del Zotto #4 of the New York Rangers controls the puck against the Philadelpia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on February 20 2011 in New York City. The Flyers defeated the Rangers 4-2. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
21-year-old defenseman Michael Del Zotto was a victim of the good ‘ol sophomore curse in 2010-11, seeing a 19-point drop from his rookie year. Everything that went right for Michael in his freshman season with the Rangers suddenly became a problem in his sophomore season. Why? I don't think you can put a finger on one major cause, but it was clear that after a while of frustration and then being sent down to the AHL really got to the kid's head. He lost confidence, he lost motivation, and now he finds himself in a do-or-die situation this September in training camp.
Del Zotto was highly touted from the day he was selected 20th overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Blueshirts. He exceled in the OHL as a member of the Oshawa Generals and later the London Knights, and then really opened eyes when he had an outstanding performance in the 2009 Traverse City Prospects Tournament. After that tourney, the Rangers knew Del Zotto was going to be joining the pro squad later that month.
If you recall, Del Zotto had a shaky start at the NHL level. Nerves got the best of him, but at the time he was just 19 so that was sort of expected. After scoring his first NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators in the home opener that season, things began started to come along nicely for DZ and we saw the skill the Rangers did when they drafted him back in '08.
Del Zotto's ability to move the puck was what stood out most, as his outlet passes were 99-percent effective and always right on the tape. Del Zotto finished his rookie campaign with 28 assists, and a big part of that was the odd-man rushes he would spring by making those stellar passes out of the defensive zone. His main target was always Marian Gaborik, and that was also the season where every shot Gabby took seemed to go in. Those two connected often and became a lethal combination for the Rangers as the season went on.
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Del Zotto got high marks after his first season and really had the fans' hopes set high for 2010-11. Unfortunately, the crisp outlet passing and puck-moving just wasn't there last season. More often than not, an outlet pass would result in a turnover that had Del Zotto caught out of position. And as we know, if you're a defenseman and your lack of positioning costs the team a goal, head coach John Tortorella will not restrain from pointing it out in the media.
Finally, at the end of February, the Rangers did to Michael exactly what they did to Matt Gilroy when he struggled the prior year, and assigned him to the AHL to play with the Connecticut Whale. That didn't last very long, though, as Del Zotto ended up breaking his hand on March 3 and was out long-term.
Fast-forwarding to the present, there are four locks on defense for the Rangers going into camp; Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Mike Sauer. The 5th, 6th and 7th spots are all up for grabs and will most likely be contended for by Del Zotto, Tim Erixon, Steve Eminger, Pavel Valentenko and Dylan McIlrath.
Aside from Eminger, all of the players listed are young and hungry, ready to do all they possibly can to be on the Rangers roster on opening night. Del Zotto certainly has his competition lined up for him this training camp, but something tells me that this kid will come determined and ready to play.
See, when Del Zotto was first assigned to the AHL, he wouldn't necessarily accept the blame. He took some responsibility, but it was evident he felt the coaching staff and the organization had made a mistake by sending him down.
Now, in the offseason, he's realized he has no choice but to improve if he wants to make the team this upcoming year, and he knows his mentality may have gotten in the way of his game last season. His thought process has changed, and you can see it in the quotes and even his tweets.
When Del Zotto has his confidence, he is something to behold. He is an above average hockey player with breathtaking vision. He is the real deal at the top of his game and I think a lot of fans have lost confidence in him after last season. I know I am one fan that hasn't, and who still believes MDZ will be back and better than ever this September.
He controls his own fate from this point forward, and he knows that. It bothered Del Zotto that he disappointed last season and I don't think he will allow that to happen again.