‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
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When Michael Del Zotto first arrived in the NHL, he was considered a ‘rough diamond.’ It was obvious to anyone watching that he possessed unique collection of offensive skills and high-level potential. If developed correctly, hockey analysts and Rangers fans agreed that he could become the franchise’s best offensive-defenseman since Brian Leetch.
With any young player, there are growing pains and Del Zotto didn’t have the luxury of minor league development as he was forced to ‘learn on the fly’ in his rookie season. Sometimes he’d make dazzling moves in the offense zone but his rawness defensively exposed the Rangers when he was on the ice.
Last season, Del Zotto spent time between the Rangers and the Connecticut Whale. The burden on Del Zotto was eased and time spent in the minors allowed him to have the opportunity iron out some of the weaknesses in his game.
That combined with having an uncompromising, taskmaster head coach in John Tortorella gave Del Zotto an advantage compared to other young defensemen around the league. Tortorella doesn’t allow any player to bend the constraints of his system and in Del Zotto’s case, Tortorella had to ‘coach-out’ the young defensemen’s offense-first mentality and natural tendencies to join in the rush.
“He just keeps improving. As long as he handles himself off the ice the way he should as far as staying within himself and still learning what it is to be a pro, he’ll keep growing,” Tortorella mentioned at his latest post-game press conference.
Present-day Del Zotto now understands when to ‘stay at home’ and when to pick the right time to jump forward and make use of his offensive gifts. On Monday night against the Islanders, he knew when to put his foot down on the gas and show some of the awe-inspiring skill that Rangers fans enjoy watching.
Del Zotto pulled off a splendid toe-drag move and unleashed a shot that allowed Ryan Callahan to get on the end of and set-up Carl Hagelin’s first goal of the evening. Later in the third period, Del Zotto picked up his second assist of the night as he again combined wonderfully with Callahan as Hagelin again beat Evgeni Nabokov.
Hagelin commented about Del Zotto’s toe-drag, “It was incredible. The guy has a lot of confidence right now. I don’t know how many goals he’s been on the ice for in last five games but he’s plus-three every game. All credit to him. He’s a great player and he’s making the most of it right now, that’s for sure.”
I had the chance to speak with Rangers’ forward Michael Rupp about Del Zotto’s development. The veteran Rupp had the opportunity to play with some terrific offensive-defensemen in his career such as Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski while he was with the New Jersey Devils. As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Rupp spent one season as a teammate of Sergei Gonchar.
Rupp’s definitely has played with some talented defensemen over the years but is impressed by the progress of the 21-year old Del Zotto.
“I think ‘DZ’ been playing pretty well for us. He’s playing physical, he’s making plays happen offensively and taking care of things in the defensive zone. When you get a ‘D’ that has the skill-set he has and can do all those things, it’s pretty valuable for the team,” Rupp explained.
When asked if Del Zotto has the makings of developing into a elite defenseman, Rupp believes that Del Zotto will not only continue to improve his offensive abilities but also is on his way to becoming a complete defenseman.
“I think so, but the thing that’s more intriguing about him is his all-around game. I played with some guys who were great offensive-defensemen but maybe they lacked a little bit in other areas of their game. I feel that he’s really growing into all aspects of the game and is becoming a complete defenseman.”
The point is that comparisons can sometimes be a good way of measuring a young player but Del Zotto has reached the point where he’s breaking away from past projections and is now writing his own legacy.
Rangers fans – how close is Del Zotto to becoming an elite defenseman? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.