-- Twelve months ago, Michael Del Zotto
was a shy, 19-year-old kid just trying to make an impression and prove he was ready to play in the National Hockey League.
Fast forward to Friday morning, when Del Zotto showed up to New York Rangers
training camp as arguably the club's No. 2 defenseman behind only Marc Staal
, who finally signed a five-year deal with the team Thursday.
"It's just a completely different scene," Del Zotto said. "Last year, I really didn't know anyone. I'm a really quiet guy, so I really didn't say much. It's good to see familiar faces and basically catching up with guys. I'm just excited to get the season going."
Not only does Del Zotto have a secure spot on the Rangers' blue line, but the first-round pick (No. 20) from 2008 enters with great expectations -- not only from team brass, but from a fan base that's aching to see the team qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out a season ago. Del Zotto had 9 goals and 28 assists as a rookie in 2009-10.
"Last year, I was doing everything I could to make the team," he said. "Everyone talks about the sophomore slumps. It was a big summer for me coming in and being ready for this year. I don't want to be one of those guys that falls into that category of the sophomore slump. I'm just coming in ready to learn some more. I'm still young. I've got one year under my belt, but there's still tons more to learn. I'm just trying to get better and better each day."
The long offseason didn't stop Del Zotto from living that philosophy. He spent a large potion of his time in the gym, where he put on some added muscle with hopes of having a better all-round game. The Ontario native told NHL.com he gained five pounds over the summer, raising his weight to 195 pounds.
"It's the strongest I've ever felt, so I'm excited for this year," Del Zotto said. "That's one thing I learned from last year -- you're not playing against kids anymore, you're playing against men. It was a big summer for me."
During his first NHL season, Del Zotto quickly developed friendships not only with players near his age, but with the veterans as well. It helped make the transition from junior hockey to the pros that much smoother.
"There were a lot of guys," Del Zotto said. "Especially on the back end, you had guys going through the same thing like Gillie (Matt Gilroy
). Staalsie's (Marc Staal
) young, too. Having guys like Redds (Wade Redden
) and Rosie (Michal Rozsival
), who have been around for a while, they kind of know the ropes and it's definitely good to have them around."
Above everyone else, though, Del Zotto said it was Rangers captain Chris Drury
who helped the young defenseman along. It's something Del Zotto won't soon forget.
"He made me feel comfortable ever since I was drafted," Del Zotto said of the Rangers' captain. "He came in and he said, 'You're a part of this team. Welcome.' Ever since then, I've felt comfortable."
Drury, who will once again wear the "C" in New York this season, gushed about Del Zotto's production last season and how the young blueliner carries himself off the ice. He also believes No. 4 hasn't even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to his abilities on the ice.
"I think talent-wise, we would all agree that the sky's the limit," Drury said. "Those things he did on the ice last year as a 19-year-old defenseman, it's a veteran's dream to do. He keeps growing and he keeps learning and he keeps asking all the right questions to the veterans and the coaching staff. He's going to be a special player."
Although he's still just 20 years of age, Del Zotto's production this season will likely play one of the biggest roles in the Rangers' ability to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While some players set personal goals for themselves before a season begins, there is only one thing Del Zotto hopes to accomplish in 2010-11.
"I just want to help the team get to the playoffs," he said. "That's pretty much the only goal I have. I don't want to set expectations for myself as far as points, goals, that kind of stuff. Whatever I can do to help the team get to the playoffs, that's what I'm going to do.
"Everyone feels the same way. We were one point out of it (last season). It basically comes down to one play. You can pick so many moments in the season. One thing I always think about is just the power play and how it needed more consistency. It could have cost us the playoffs. That's just added motivation for me to keep it consistent throughout this whole season because, really, that is my job."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL