-- With each passing game, Rangers rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto
proves to the club and the entire hockey world that he's the real thing. The one guy he hasn't had to convince is New York Assistant GM and assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld.
Schoenfeld saw enough in Del Zotto after just one preseason game last season to determine he could be something special.
With former Rangers coach Tom Renney having to journey back to British Columbia to be with his ailing mother, Schoenfeld was called down from his management booth to serve as a coach on the bench for the Rangers' 2008 preseason opener in Ottawa.
As he does now in practice every day, Schoenfeld handled the defensemen. Del Zotto, then 18 and just a few months removed from being the 20th pick in the Entry Draft, was making his pro debut that night at Scotiabank Place.
"The longer the game went on, he emerged as our best defenseman," Schoenfeld told NHL.com Monday morning. "He was the best on the power play and fine in any one-on-one competition defensively. It's one thing to watch him from a managerial perspective or a scouting perspective, but there is a sense that a coach gets when you feel comfortable putting someone on the ice. For one game I was in that role and I had a great sense of confidence and comfort in putting him on the ice in any situation."
Rangers coach John Tortorella is starting to feel the same way after nine games this season with Del Zotto, whose poise, intelligence and skill have made an impression on a not-easy-to-impress head coach.
Del Zotto leads all NHL defensemen with nine points and three power-play goals while playing only 15:25 per game. He has been on the ice for nine of the Rangers' 10 power-play goals.
"Forget about his skill and all the points he's put on the board, but it's the way he handles himself," Tortorella said. "I don't think he's afraid. I don't think he's afraid to make mistakes so it allows him to try to make a difference. That's pretty unique for a 19-year-old guy playing the toughest position in the game."
Tortorella also said he likes Del Zotto because "he's learning, very coachable and he's instinctive." Those are just some of the traits Schoenfeld saw last preseason, when he thought the youngster was good enough that he could have made the Rangers.
"Except he was 18 and the right thing was for him to go back to junior," Schoenfeld said. "But if you were just judging everything on a blank slate, last year his camp was good enough and this year he's picked up right from there. All the strengths he showed in training camp last year he's exhibiting in games now."
Schoenfeld is talking mostly about the Del Zotto's offensive skills, including his remarkable vision, anticipation and accurate passing ability.
"It's not just an accurate pass from A to B, it's an accurately timed pass because there is all this other stuff going on and the timing to get it from A to B is what matters," Schoenfeld said. "That's vision and anticipation and he has that in his game."
He also said Del Zotto's shot (he has 13, including a season-high four in Monday's loss to San Jose) is markedly improved now compared to even when camp started "because he works on it." And his defensive game, which could be a liability for such an offensive-minded but young blueliner, is underrated.
Schoenfeld, who is not on the bench during games, said the coaching staff is starting to use Del Zotto in tougher matchups now because he has proven he can handle them.
He played a season-high 18:30 Saturday in Toronto.
"He's closing guys off in the neutral zone, his gaps are good and one-on-one his battle level is fine in the defensive zone because he's intelligent," Schoenfeld said. "He doesn't go muscle on muscle. He gets a piece of the opponent, but he separates them from the puck and that's all you have to do. He is smart enough to know how to get the right body position, how to get the right angle and how to go in with enough force to create the turnover. And when he gets the puck he usually makes a good play with it."
"Forget about his skill and all the points he's put on the board, but it's the way he handles himself. I don't think he's afraid. I don't think he's afraid to make mistakes so it allows him to try to make a difference. That's pretty unique for a 19-year-old guy playing the toughest position in the game."
-- John Tortorella on Michael Del Zotto
Of course, that's just for right now. Nine games isn't enough proof. Schoenfeld even joked that although Del Zotto is a point-per-game player right now, he's not about to make bets on him scoring 82 this season.
"I think any team would make a terrible mistake if they thought the guy had arrived at 19," Schoenfeld said. "He is still boy-strong. He's not even man-strong yet, but he has those ingredients that we like to say can't be taught."
And that's why, based on what the Rangers have seen of him and what they think they know about him, they already believe Del Zotto is the real thing.
"It's like our year so far," Schoenfeld said. "Everybody says we're off to a great start, but a great start is only good because it gives you a foundation to build from. If you don't keep building up it's easy to go the other way and that's the same with Michael.
"He has given us every indication to believe he can meet the challenges to come, but until a player does meet those challenges the jury is still out. So far, though, everything has been trending upwards and that's a pretty good sign."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com