It’s been just over a year since the NHL announced the candidates for the 2011-12 annual awards, given to the league’s outstanding performers during the regular season. And although the New York Rangers’ young defenseman Michael Del Zotto wasn't nominated for the league’s top honor for defensemen—the Norris Trophy—it was later revealed that he finished in the top 15 in voting.
While that may not seem noteworthy to some, it was still a tremendous honor for the 21-year-old who spent time in the AHL the season before. To be included in what is the upper echelon of defensemen in the best hockey league in the world is special, but it carried even more weight for Del Zotto after his disastrous 2010-11 campaign.
Heading into 2013, the Rangers hoped Del Zotto would continue on the path to NHL stardom, and in January and early February it looked as if he might, but as the season went on, Del Zotto’s play steadily declined and eventually hit rock bottom in the playoffs.
As tough as it is to say—and I know, because I’ve been one of his biggest supporters—DZ was not just useless in the postseason, he was effectively hurting the team. He had zero confidence with the puck, which severely limited his ability to create offense—a hallmark of his game. But what was most alarming was his abysmal play in his own zone.
His persisting indecisiveness prohibited him from making simple plays and, as a result, he complicated his game. Basic fundamentals were thrown out the window at times, as Del Zotto made a habit of following opposing forwards behind his own net or into corners at the wrong times.
In one-on-one situations, the 22-year-old made average players look like superstars and himself like a mannequin. Constantly caught flatfooted, Del Zotto eventually became a target, or at least that's what it seemed like.
When the No. 20 selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was chosen by the Rangers, the initial scouting report was that he was an offensive-minded defenseman. He was a point-per-game guy in the OHL and in his first season with the Rangers in 2009-10 he impressed with his sublime passing and solid shooting abilities. Shades of Brian Leetch, if you will.
But that part of his game is gone. His offensive aptitude is better than your average defenseman, but to say he plays like an offensive defenseman would be incorrect. And, although former Rangers coach John Tortorella helped Del Zotto become a better player in his own end, he seriously regressed this year. What I’m trying to say is this: he’s not an asset in either the offensive or defensive zone. At least right now he’s not.
Therefore, Rangers general manager Glen Sather should dangle Del Zotto in the trade market, and the youngster’s poor play isn't the only reason why.
When the Rangers traded struggling forward Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets for forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore, many fans were left scratching their heads.
Surely they could get more for a player who scored 40-plus goals in the three full seasons he played in New York. But it didn't take long for them to realize that Moore was going to be a solid player.
His size, speed and willingness to use his body made him a very versatile player and, before long, Tortorella preferred Moore to Del Zotto in nearly every situation. At the end of the day, Moore’s upside is as good as or better than Del Zotto’s, so with the expectation that Marc Staal is ready to play by the start of next season, the Rangers will have four left handed defenseman and DZ seems to be the odd man out.
Furthermore, the Rangers have other needs to fill. 2013 was once again marred by the team’s inability to score goals regularly, and now that Gaborik is gone and Brad Richards is ineffective, the Rangers could use a legitimate second-line winger. Del Zotto is still young and still has upside. Now is the perfect time to dangle him in the trade market.
I know much of the Rangers faithful agrees with me when I say that Del Zotto has been a disaster and they should look to move him, but at the same time many will disagree with me and claim that I’m being too reactionary. As I said earlier, I've always been a Del Zotto supporter and I thought 2013 could have been his year, but when you consider all the factors at play, looking to move him is the best option.
I was crucified for taking into account all the dynamics of the Gaborik and Richards situations, but clearly I wasn't alone, as Gaborik was traded and Richards worked himself into the pressbox and now is the supreme candidate for the Rangers’ second compliance buyout. Del Zotto’s case isn't much different.
When it comes down to it, DZ isn't ever going to be a defensive stalwart. He’s too erratic and his one-on-one play is subpar. His offensive potential is his best asset. What Sather and the rest of the Rangers’ brass need to do is decide whether or not Del Zotto ever had true offensive ability translatable to the NHL game.
Were his rookie showings a fluke, or was he another victim of Tortorella’s offensively starved system? If they feel it’s the latter, then they should think long and hard, but if they conclude that it’s the former, then he’s got to go.