Rangers

Hartnett: Del Zotto’s Days Numbered? Rangers Seem Poised To Move On

Talented Defenseman Has Yet To Figure The NHL Out For Several Reasons
Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Michael Del Zotto watched helplessly as the Rangers threw everything in their arsenal at Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask on Tuesday night.

Rask made 43 saves, as the Bruins escaped Madison Square Garden with a fortunate 2-1 victory given the Rangers’ territorial domination, their relentless attack and the return of star winger Rick Nash.

Meanwhile, Del Zotto, who was a healthy scratch, was once again a forgotten figure.

Del Zotto’s diminished production — one goal and three assists in 16 games — has made him a bystander of late. He sat out for a third consecutive game on Tuesday.

However, that could change on Thursday in Dallas as Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault tested a new defensive pairing of Del Zotto and Justin Falk during Wednesday’s practice.

A.V. STICKING WITH ‘SAFE’ FALK

Lately, Falk has earned the trust his coach, cementing his place in the lineup with consistent steadiness in his own end. Vigneault has recently opted to include the rugged and dependable 6-foot-5, 215-pound defenseman in his lineup over the struggling Del Zotto.

“He brings us a safe game,” Vigneault said of Falk on Tuesday. “Safe, and a little bit of a bite.”

Now, it could be John Moore’s turn to make way as he skated as an extra defenseman on Wednesday.

There’s little reason for Vigneault to remove Moore, or, for that matter, any of his current top six defensemen to force Del Zotto’s entry back into the lineup. The only understandable reason for including Del Zotto in Thursday’s lineup would be to showcase him to scouts and general manager’s around the league.

Del Zotto’s value is currently at an all-time low due to his unconvincing play in all areas of the ice. Perhaps, a solid performance or two would raise his trade stock and add some credence to the trade rumors.

WILL DEL ZOTTO EVER FIGURE IT OUT?

Vigneault’s up-tempo system should have been an ideal match for the athletic and free-roaming Del Zotto. It’s a worrying sign that he has failed to live up to expectations under two coaches with diametrically opposite personalities and coaching philosophies in John Tortorella and Vigneault.

At 23, Del Zotto has yet to make a significant leap forward in his development. Over the years, the Rangers have been exceedingly patient with him, yet he’s failed to harness his offensive upside. He’s far from the talented power play quarterback that many scouts projected him to become.

RUMORS ARE GATHERING STEAM

Del Zotto’s absence from game action has caused the rumor mill to go into overdrive, as many are speculating that GM Glen Sather is willing to part with his surplus of defenseman to acquire a goal-scoring forward.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, “at least five or six teams have inquired about trade scenarios” involving Del Zotto.

Unless there’s a general manager out there who strongly believes that Del Zotto would benefit greatly from a change of scenery, Sather will not be able to use him as a key piece in talks to land a proven goal-getter.

The Rangers are in a no-win situation with Del Zotto. Should they showcase him during their upcoming five-game road trip, interested trade partners will observe his faltering game. Worse, his propensity for making mindless turnovers could result in a loss for the Blueshirts as they’ve recently been beaten by one-goal margins.

It’s hard not to notice the cracks in Del Zotto’s game when he’s on the ice. He has proven to be mistake-prone and tends to get caught up ice, allowing opponents the opportunity to capitalize in transition.

If there are five or six teams checking in on Del Zotto’s availability, Sather might be wise to explore options and take the best deal on the table to exorcise Del Zotto from his roster before his value plummets further.

The Rangers have enough in-house options to compensate should Sather pull the trigger on a deal.

Internally, the Rangers are believed to be high on 23-year-old minor league defenseman Conor Allen. The 6-1, 210-pounder, who specializes in positioning and blocking shots, is projected to be a capable third-pairing guy.

Allen impressed with the Rangers during the preseason before being sent down to Hartford.

Additionally, former No. 10 overall draft pick Dylan McIlrath is a player regarded highly by the Rangers’ hockey operations personnel.

What’s clear is that the 21-year-old blueliner has the ability to play the shutdown game and possesses a heavy shot. Whether he’s gained enough experience due to his tender age and history of knee ailments is a question worth debating.

For now, it looks like Del Zotto will get the chance to prove to Vigneault and GMs watching around the NHL that he’s a far better player than the one the fans have been groaning at all season.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey

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