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Del Zotto defies odds by making team as teen

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Tortorella on Del Zotto Making the Team Watch

By Jim Cerny,

Should Michael Del Zotto be in the lineup for the Rangers’ 2009-10 season-opener in Pittsburgh on Friday night, he would become the second-youngest defenseman in franchise history to ever play in a regular-season contest and the youngest ever to play on opening night.

As of Tuesday, there was no question that the 19-year-old defenseman would be with the Rangers when the season officially opens.

By earning a spot on the Blueshirts roster at age 19, Michael Del Zotto did something no Rangers defenseman has been able to do since Brian Leetch made the team as a 19-year-old in 1988.
Tortorella made it official on Tuesday afternoon, stating that Del Zotto will be on the Rangers opening-night roster.

“Based on his play, he has made the club,” said the Rangers head coach. “He’s had a good camp. And as I have told you, we are not looking at age or anything like that. We feel right now he has played well enough to be with the National Hockey League team.”

It has been an impressive run for Del Zotto, the club’s first-round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Before training camp started, he was among the best players in the Traverse City prospects tournament. Then he made a positive first impression at training camp, both with his excellent conditioning and his on-ice play. And Del Zotto built upon all of that by playing in an exciting, confident, and poised manner throughout the Rangers preseason schedule.

It all added up to Tortorella’s decision to keep Del Zotto with the club, although the young defenseman is well aware that he must continue to learn and improve to remain on the Rangers’ NHL roster.

“There are still lots of deadlines and markers ahead for me,” said Del Zotto, who can play in nine NHL games without giving up his eligibility to be returned to his major junior club in London. “My goal is to be here all year. They could send me back before nine games, or even tomorrow, for all I know. So I am here to prove myself every day.”

Currently sitting at the age of 19 years and three months, Del Zotto would slot in behind Dave Maloney as the second-youngest defenseman in team history when he makes his debut. Maloney was just 18 years and four months old when he made his first appearance with the Rangers during the 1974-75 season.

In the same season that Maloney first joined the team, fellow defenseman Ron Greschner made his debut at 19 years and 10 months old. Del Zotto will wear the same No. 4 that Greschner wore throughout his Rangers career.

Hall-of-Famer Brian Leetch was 19 years and 11 months old when he played in his first game with the Rangers late in the 1987-88 campaign. Leetch turned 20 just three days after his first NHL game against St. Louis.

Like Leetch, Del Zotto is a gifted offensive defenseman, who confidently leads the rush to create prime scoring chances for himself and his teammates. While that part of the game comes more easily to him, Del Zotto has been working diligently on his defensive play, as well.

“His strength, obviously, is offense, but he has shown that he is really willing to compete away from the puck and in the end zone,” said Tortorella. “Part of the responsibility falls on the coaches now to teach him that part of the game.”

Del Zotto will be joined by 25 year-old Matt Gilroy as first-year pros on the Rangers blueline to start the season. Gilroy, who was selected as the 2009 recipient of the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award as the club’s top rookie in training camp, also is an impressive offensive defenseman, giving the organization two highly-skilled playmakers on the back end.

The two rookies emerged from a spirited competition in training camp that featured several other talented young defenseman who were looking to crack the roster.

Del Zotto believes that the competition in camp brought out the best in him, and is a big positive for the organization moving forward.

“I think it was a very healthy competition,” said Del Zotto, who recorded 63 points while splitting the 2008-09 season with Oshawa and London in the OHL. “Everyone is competing for spots and, in the end, it makes you a better individual player, and better as a team. There’s a lot of depth here on the back end, so you have to prove yourself every day.”

Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist -- himself now a 27-year-old fifth-year pro --  will play behind the two rookie defensemen this season, and is excited about what they bring to the mix.

“It’s always good to have young kids come in with a lot of energy and fire,” said Lundqvist. “They bring it on the ice and in the (dressing) room. It’s good for the veteran guys to see that.”

Throughout training camp, Del Zotto did his best to absorb as much information, and as many lessons, as he could from his veteran teammates, Tortorella, and assistant coaches Jim Schoenfeld and Mike Sullivan.

Though he did not know whether or not he would be with the Rangers by opening night, Del Zotto wanted to make sure that he soaked up every last bit of knowledge he could to take with him no matter where he played this year.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that there are no days off here,” said Del Zotto. “You’re here to work every day. It’s all business. And it’s not just on the ice, it’s off the ice, as well, how you control yourself and how mature you are.”

The one thing no one had to teach Del Zotto, however, is to have fun on the ice and as a New York Ranger.

“I love playing the game,” he said. “I’d rather be doing this than anything else. Every day I come to the rink, I have a smile on my face.”
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