Part of the offseason, besides engaging in the NHL free-agent frenzy, is for GMs to examine their teams and determine which restricted free agents are key for future success and warrant new contracts.
Del Zotto finished his third NHL campaign with career numbers (10 goals, 31 assists in 77 games) and a belief his horrific sophomore season was in the past. He came into training camp last season prepared and willing to do what was necessary to convince the coaching staff he belonged in the mix on the back line.
His 2011-12 season proved he belonged.
The season didn't finish as well as he's liked as Del Zotto struggled through the Devils' playoff series (mostly due to losing his grandmother), but, on the whole, it was a great sight witnessing the former 20th overall pick of the 2008 NHL draft shine once again on Broadway.
Locking up such a young piece to New York's defense is key, and there are a few reasons why.
Re-signing Michael Del Zotto long term will add to the Rangers impressive, young defense corps of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Last season, Del Zotto averaged 22:26 of ice time playing mostly alongside fellow RFA Anton Stralman. Despite the fact he was part of a rotation, Del Zotto proved he belonged in the top four of the Rangers defense.
With Stralman filing for arbitration, he could seek an award from an arbitrator. However, both sides are working on a multi-year deal. Locking up Del Zotto first would, at the very least, keep the top four defensemen from last season intact. Bringing back Stralman to an affordable deal would maintain the Rangers depth.
The uncertainty surrounding the health of Michael Sauer will also play a factor in Del Zotto's return. Although making slight progress, Sauer cannot be relied upon for next season until deemed ready to play, thus making DZ's return even more important.
You can never have enough defensemen.
Of all the defensemen the Rangers have, only Michael Del Zotto projects to be a true offensive defenseman and potential power-play quarterback. Last season, he averaged 4:11 of ice time on the man advantage, playing mostly alongside Brad Richards at the point on the first power-play unit, finishing with one goal and 13 assists.
All as a 21-year-old, mind you.
The most crucial aspect of Del Zotto's game that must be improved is his shot, both in selection and his ability to get it on net. Countless times, whether on special teams or even strength, Del Zotto's shot would fly high or wide of the net. It's something over time, and with proper training, that can be fixed.
Part of being a power-play quarterback is firing shots on net to either get deflections or end up in the back of the net with a good screen. More times than not, Del Zotto would defer to someone else. He must learn that firing away from the point (he has a hard shot) is sometimes better than passing the puck along.
Essentially, it's finding the right balance.
If Del Zotto can improve his shot selection and accuracy next season, it will make the Rangers' man advantage deadlier.
Considered the toughest position to master and develop into, the NHL defenseman means you have your work cut out for you.
Playing against the opposition's best players, fighting for the puck in the corners, maintaining positioning, jockeying in front of your net while protecting your goalie and throwing your body around are just some of things need to be done game after game.
Would you believe Michael Del Zotto was able to do this as a 19-year-old rookie in the NHL?
His first season was, in fact, a defensive nightmare (minus-20); however, Del Zotto showed his offensive abilities with 37 points in 80 games. After experiencing struggles in his second year, he was motivated him to not only mature, but hunker down defensively.
One thing Del Zotto added to his game last season was some snarl—his 156 hits were fifth on the team and second behind Dan Girardi for defensemen.
One area he must fix is his decision making with the puck. All too often, Del Zotto would press the issue, or force a pass through the middle—a huge no-no. It's a sign he's still a bit green and needs to mature, but nothing that can't be fixed.
What all of this means is quite simple: Del Zotto is just 22 years old and has a few years before he fully develops. He's shown flashes of brilliance in his three NHL seasons.
With the right coaching staff putting him into a position to grow, Del Zotto could be one of the Rangers' best defensemen in the next few seasons.