-- About nine months ago, Michael Del Zotto
hit rock bottom.
The New York Rangers
were in a chase for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. At the trade deadline, they decided they were better off acquiring veteran defenseman Bryan McCabe
and sending the 20-year-old Del Zotto to the AHL for the rest of the season.
As if that wasn't enough of a punch to the stomach of the promising Del Zotto, he broke his finger in his first game with the Connecticut Whale.
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Just like that, a nightmare of a second season was over.
"It was a tough time for me," Del Zotto told NHL.com. "Going down, no one enjoys that. It's not a great feeling. Then a day later, breaking your finger in half and knowing you're going to be out for a while. That's a tough scenario to go through, but it made me stronger as a person and as a player."
With defense partner Michael Sauer
out indefinitely with a concussion, Del Zotto will need to be even stronger than he has already been this season.
When it comes to dishing out credit for how the Rangers have handled the loss of No. 1 defenseman Marc Staal
, a lot of the well-deserved praise goes to Ryan McDonagh
. The 22-year-old has seamlessly slotted into Staal's spot alongside Dan Girardi
, giving the Rangers' a top defense pairing that rivals that of any in the League.
Last season, the combination of McDonagh and Sauer worked extremely well as a second pairing, but with McDonagh raised to the top unit, there wasn't a clear answer for filling that No. 4 spot alongside Sauer this season. Entering training camp, there was a host of candidates for the job, including Tim Erixon
, Brendan Bell
, Steve Eminger
and Pavel Valentenko
But it was Del Zotto who impressed the coaching staff and earned a roster spot.
"He's been real good," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "As far as where he was in the process from last year till now, the thing that's encouraging to me is I think he listened as we were going through some steps last year. He made some adjustments as far as the mental part of the game. He came into camp in really good shape and has defended hard. That's been a huge improvement in his game."
The improvement and development of Del Zotto has arguably been the biggest factor in easing the burden of Staal's loss, because the depth the Rangers enjoyed last year hasn't been damaged this year. The Rangers have allowed 12 fewer goals through 24 games this season than they did last season, and a big reason is the top four -- not just the top two -- have been rock-solid.
"Coming into camp, I wanted to prove to the coaching staff that I belong on this team," Del Zotto told NHL.com. "Unfortunately, we've had Marc Staal
out and I've gotten more minutes and I'm just trying to get better each day and prove to the coaching staff I've learned."
Through 24 games, Del Zotto has been as steady as anyone on the Rangers' blue line, with 2 goals, 10 points and a plus-8 rating with an average of 22:20 of ice time per game, third-highest on the team. That's a tremendous recovery from his second season, in which he had 2 goals, 11 points and a minus-9 rating in 47 games and lost his job as the team's quarterback on the power play.
The now-21-year-old Del Zotto says the biggest change from last season took place between his ears.
"Confidence and just being more mentally prepared is the biggest thing," Del Zotto told NHL.com. "For a young guy, especially for a defenseman in this League, it's tough. There are so many good offensive players out there. Once you lose your confidence, you get eaten alive. That's one thing the coaching staff has been talking about since day one, making sure you have that swagger. But mentally, I wanted to come in and be confident in myself and not get down too easily. I think last year, I was forcing things offensively. Knowing the right times to jump in and situational play is one thing I've really worked on this year with the coaching staff.
"Everyone always talks about that sophomore slump, and maybe that creeps into your head a little bit. This year, I didn't want to set any numbers as far as offensively or anything like that. I feel like that just adds more pressure. I just want to go out and play my game and do anything I can to help my team."
Plus-minus isn't necessarily the best way to judge a player's defensive prowess, but Del Zotto was a minus player in 48 of his first 127 NHL games. In 24 games this year, that's only been the case four times. The power-play ice time taken away last season is back in spades. He leads the team with an average of 4:13 of extra-man ice time per game.
McDonagh has filled the void of Staal, but Del Zotto has quietly filled the skates of McDonagh on the second pairing for the Rangers, and it's made a big difference this season. Now that Sauer is out of the lineup, Del Zotto will be counted on more than ever.
"The biggest improvement for me with him was his mindset, as far as learning to be a pro," Tortorella said. "We expect so much out of him at such a young age because of the way he splashed onto us. This is another part of the process, and we're trying to be patient with him and try to help him regain some of his swagger and make sure he's on the right line of that swagger."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo