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Del Zotto, Tortorella together again with Blue Jackets

Trust factor, chance to win among reasons why veteran defenseman ended up in Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Michael Del Zotto has lived a full NHL life. 

He started as a 19-year-old hotshot with the New York Rangers and head coach John Tortorella, a high-scoring first-round draft pick who arrived in New York City and didn't shy from the glitz and glamour that came along with all of that. 

Now, 659 regular-season games later, he's almost at the point you could call him a grizzled veteran. But at age 30, the Blue Jackets defenseman still believes he has a lot to give a successful team, and the Jackets agreed, signing him first to a tryout contract before this season and eventually a two-way deal for the 2021 season. 

Del Zotto has been in the lineup for the first two games of the season and has a pair of assists and a number of scoring chances, giving him what he seeks most -- a chance to contribute to a team with big hopes. 

Video: Del Zotto checks in on Tuesday afternoon.

"I really enjoy this team," Del Zotto said. "I like where they are trending. Every year, they have a chance to win. I love the makeup of this team. Obviously, I understand how Torts coaches and how he gets the best out of his players. I'm really excited. 

"It's been a few years since I've been on a team that's trying to win. I've been playing that mentorship role the last few years on rebuilding teams, and I'm still able to do that and excited to help out with the young guys here, but at the same time I know the team is trying to win and that's exciting." 

It's been a bit of a wild journey for Del Zotto, who started with the Rangers as a confident, risk-taking offensive threat from the blue line after an impressive OHL career. After four-plus years with New York, he was traded to Nashville at the 2014 trade deadline, where he played with Seth Jones, before three seasons in Philadelphia with the Flyers and playing in every game in 2017-18 with Vancouver. 

His 2018-19 season was a wild ride, as he started with the Canucks, then moved on to Anaheim in a January trade before dealt again at the deadline to St. Louis to provide veteran depth. He played seven regular-season games with St. Louis but zero playoff games for the "Gloria" Blues, though his name was etched onto the Stanley Cup following the campaign.  

Del Zotto then was a veteran mentor last year with a foundering Anaheim team before signing this time around with Columbus. So you can see why the chance to win is important to him, and for Tortorella, the chance to reunite with a player he's stayed in touch with over the years was an intriguing one. 

Not that the two have always seen eye to eye. 

"I had Del Z when he came in as a first-year player in New York -- full of swagger, sometimes a little bit too much swagger," Tortorella said. "(He) went through the process with me. Sent him down, wasn't happy -- all that stuff that we always talk about when you're developing with a young guy, he went through it with me.  

"We have stayed in touch throughout the years. There were times we didn't even talk to one another because he was so upset about certain things he was going through in New York, but the thing I like about him is that as he's gotten older, he understands the professionalism and why he was put through it. 

"I think he's 30? I remember when he was just a wise (guy) when he came into New York, and now he's a 30-year-old man, and you can see that maturity. That's pretty cool to me in starting with a young guy, having some struggles and conflict with him and seeing how he's grown up to be a man." 

Del Zotto confirmed it's been quite a ride over the years with his first and current NHL coach. 

"The thing with Torts, you know where you stand with him," he said. "He's brutally honest. If you can take it, if you have thick skin, there's no other coach you'd rather play for. When you play for coaches where you don't know where you stand, it's tough to have a conversation with (them). You're not sure if they're telling the truth or not with you. With him, you know where you stand every day, and that's very hard to find. He wears his heart on his sleeve, too. He would do anything for his players. 

"I mean, I had Torts my first year in the league at 19. I came in as an offensive defenseman. Going through juniors, you're playing with the puck, you're playing in offensive positions, and then you have Torts. As you know, he preaches blocking shots, playing defense, playing the right way, playing within the system. It took me a little bit of time to adapt to that … but now being in my 12th year, understanding what it takes to win every single night, we definitely see eye-to-eye." 

On the ice, Del Zotto has been on the team's third pair so far this year through two games, notching a pair of assists Saturday vs. Nashville while playing with Dean Kukan. The hope is his veteran presence will combine with the offensive abilities he still has -- a good first pass out of the defensive zone as well as the ability to read the ice and earn power-play time if the need arises -- to give the team a different look on the back end. 

Video: CBJ@NSH: Foligno pushes puck across the goal line

"You can see the awareness that he has," Jones said. "He's a veteran guy … and a great guy, great team guy in the room. He's definitely going to bring a veteran presence for us on the blue line. He can play special teams as well if need be and seems very steady, so we're looking forward to having him in a Blue Jackets jersey." 

It won't take long for Del Zotto to earn the head coach's trust as well. It's only a process that started more than a decade ago. 

"I think that's one of the biggest pluses of him joining this team is you can use him in a lot of different situations," Tortorella said. "I think he understands the expectation of how we go about it here. I think he understands this is an opportunity for him to reestablish himself a little bit here, so we're looking forward to seeing where he goes." 

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