Flyers' new defenseman motivated

Del Zotto
Del Zotto
Posted: August 08, 2014

FOUR GAMES. One long road trip.

That's all it took to derail Michael Del Zotto's season last October, sending the defenseman once thought to be the future of the Broadway blue line spiraling down a dark road that ended as a frequent healthy scratch on a far different Lower Broadway in Nashville last April.

A more humble Del Zotto, now armed with a second chance after Kimmo Timonen's blood clots opened an opportunity, will have a lot to prove on Broad Street this fall after signing a 1-year contract with the Flyers.

"Without making the playoffs, it's been a long summer. It's something new for me," Del Zotto said yesterday in a conference call. "I took 2 weeks off and started training right away. Last year didn't go the way I would have liked, or the way I wanted it to be. So, it was a bit of a humbling season for me.

"This offseason has been the most motivated I've been - to prove everyone wrong, so that I can get back to where I was before."

It has been a few years, so it's hard to remember that Del Zotto - New York's No. 1 pick in 2008 - was once the face of the Rangers' defense corps in front of Henrik Lundqvist.

He was playing 22 minutes a night in 2011-12, when he racked up 10 goals and 31 assists for 41 points with a plus-20 rating, as a 21-year-old.

Few young players with such a pedigree fall so hard, so fast.

"I'm not sure [why]," Del Zotto said, trying to explain everything. "If I had an answer for it, I'd be able to answer just as easy. I was playing to my capabilities. Last year, I just seemed to lose my confidence early in the season."

To hear Del Zotto explain last season, his first under new coach Alain Vigneault, he struggled during the first week of the season and never recovered.

Awaiting the completion of the final renovations at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers began the year on a massive, nine-game road swing. New York was outscored by an embarrassing 24-6 in its first four losses (Phoenix, San Jose, Anaheim and St. Louis) and Del Zotto was a minus-6.

He caught the flu and missed the next game - a win in Washington - and Vigneault fingered Del Zotto as the difference. It was only Oct. 19, not even 3 weeks into the season, and Del Zotto was a healthy scratch.

His point totals and pedigree mattered little. When he did intermittently get back into the lineup, his minutes and responsibilities were slashed.

"It's a confidence game," Del Zotto said. "If you don't believe in yourself to make the plays that you need to as an offensive player, it's tough to go on from there. I really didn't get much ice time after the first week of the season. We had a tough start to the year on that road trip and didn't win many games - it just kind of spiraled down from there."

Del Zotto was traded on Jan. 22 to Nashville for veteran Kevin Klein. The Rangers went on to the Stanley Cup finals, knocking off the Flyers in seven games in the first round.

He arrived in the Music City - comparing the small-town feel to junior hockey after playing in the bright lights of Manhattan - and still couldn't find his game.

"I started out playing in the top four with Seth Jones," Del Zotto explained. "I didn't get any power-play time. Being an offensive defenseman, that's where you need to get your ice time to get your touches with the puck, get a feel for the puck and make your plays. I didn't play any special teams. For whatever reason, I came out of the lineup and it was just a spiral from there."

In 25 games, he didn't impress the budget-minded Predators to even issue him a qualifying offer of $2.9 million, letting him walk to free agency. The Islanders and Canucks reportedly kicked the tires, but passed. The Flyers, meanwhile, signed decidedly less-talented Nick Schultz for $1.25 million - just $50,000 less than Del Zotto ultimately ended up signing for on Tuesday.

"I knew it was just a matter of time for something to happen, to find the right opportunity," Del Zotto said. "I know I'm an NHL player and I know what I can bring to the table. This is the most motivated I've ever been. I'm excited to join Philadelphia, a great team, a great opportunity for me."

It is tough to say Craig Berube has a steadier blue line by swapping Timonen for Del Zotto, but he certainly has a more mobile unit - something the Flyers desperately needed.

"[There's] a lot of offensive ability. I think that's where I can step in, move the puck up to a lot of those forwards that can make plays and being able to join the rush and help out and contribute offensively," Del Zotto said. "I'm just happy to be another piece of the puzzle."

In many ways, Del Zotto is not unlike Steve Mason, a talented young prospect who was the face of a franchise. The Flyers mended Mason's confidence and he restored his statistics. The reward on the other end of a 1-year audition deal was the trust of a long-term contract. The model is in place - even if Del Zotto isn't thinking that far ahead.

"I just turned 24," Del Zotto said. "I'm still young. There's lots to learn. Nothing is given, everything has to be earned. You can't take anything for granted - there's so many great players out there. It's been a great summer for me, mentally and physically preparing myself for a big season."

On Twitter: @DNFlyers

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