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Del Zotto uses offense as his best defense

NHL.com @NHL

Like most offensive defensemen, Michael Del Zotto feels the need to improve defensively. But he's already responsible enough to shut down the opposition’s top offensive threats.

"He needs to improve on the defensive coverage side of the game because he is an offensive defenseman," NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire said. "He is looking to jump up into the rush and is looking offense first."

McGuire notes that while many will try to label Del Zotto as a one-dimensional player, he still is maturing with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League.
 
"Initially, he projects to be an offensive specialist," McGuire said. "But as he gains more experience, as he has done in junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals, he'll become more of an all-round defenseman.

Del Zotto, selected by the New York Rangers at No. 20 in the 2008 Entry Draft, played some very significant defensive minutes for the Generals last season. Del Zotto's plus-7 rating won't blow anyone away, but he was on the ice against some of the OHL's top scorers on a nightly basis.

Del Zotto learned one of the better ways to eliminate forwards was to maintain control of the puck -- and when the opposition did get control of the puck, he wasn't afraid to be physical.

NEW YORK RANGERS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 97
(5TH eAst/9TH NHL)
Change from 2006-07 -3
Home Points 53
(2ND eAst/6TH NHL)
Away Points 44
(9TH eAst/13TH NHL)
"I've found the best way to shut down a player is not having them have the puck and kind of keeping the puck away from them -- maybe keep it on my stick instead of theirs," Del Zotto said. "Kind of make them shut me down. Just whenever they have the puck, whenever I get a chance to play the body on them, make them not want to come back into my corner."

While Del Zotto can be physical, he is one of the best power-play point men in the OHL, and he spent most of last season feeding Brett MacLean and John Tavares, who finished second and third in the OHL scoring race with 119 and 118 points, respectively.

Del Zotto is used to playing with highly skilled players such as Tavares, the likely first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. Del Zotto played midget AAA for the Markham Waxers with this year's No. 1 pick, Steve Stamkos, and No. 10 selection Cody Hodgson. He faced Stamkos, who played for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, last season and feels a friendly competition when he squares off against his former teammate.

"You want to one-up him and do better than him," Del Zotto said. "We're best of friends off the ice (but) once we got on the ice, we have no friends. We had a couple of collisions in a game this year and a couple of run-ins, but we had a smile on our face when the game was over."

Just two OHL defensemen -- Ryan Wilson and 2006 Rangers' first-rounder Bobby Sanguinetti -- had more points than Del Zotto’s 63 in 64 games last season. Del Zotto started his hockey career playing forward, which explains his formidable offensive skills, and he finds pleasure in surprising the other team's defense. 

"My first five years I started off as a forward and when I moved over to play for Markham, I switched to a defenseman," Del Zotto said. "That's kind of how I get my offensive defenseman skill kind of going.

"Definitely being an offensive defenseman is what I like to do. I love quarterbacking the power play, jumping up in the rush and kind of surprising the other team, catch them off guard and create some offense. I love handling the puck and using my vision to make strong passes. I'm trying to work on my game right now to be an all–round defenseman."

Del Zotto didn't just produce during the regular season for the Generals; he also helped them to a productive playoff run, during which Oshawa swept the Ottawa 67's and defeated the Niagara IceDogs in six games before bowing to the Belleville Bulls in five games in the Eastern Conference Final. Del Zotto had two goals and six assists for eight points in 15 playoff games.

At 6-foot and 211 pounds, Del Zotto isn’t a big player, but he does have a rough edge to his game. He proved that last season with 82 penalty minutes in 64 games.

"I know if they (scouts) have come to see a game, they can see I can kind of throw my weight around," Del Zotto said. "That's one of the aspects of having my game. I like to throw my weight around, make some bone-crushing hits (and) that I can contribute offensively."

Del Zotto likely will return to Oshawa in the fall. But if he delivers as promised, he could soon be playing a major role on a revamped New York defensive corps that features youngsters like Marc Staal and Sanguinetti as well as veteran Wade Redden.

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