Mike Mottau has had an exciting year. That's putting it mildly. After an impressive four-year career at Boston College that included three trips to the NCAA Frozen Four and capturing the 2000 Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player in the United States, Mottau earned his chance to shine on Broadway for the team that selected him in the NHL Entry Draft less than four years ago.
Mottau began the 2000-2001 season with the New York Rangers out of training camp, but the 6-foot, 200-pound native of Quincy, Massachusetts quickly realized that he was no longer playing college hockey anymore. He was now in the pros. And this unquestionably required some adjustments, as is usually the case with all players, especially defensemen. The pace is quicker, the guys are stronger and a player has a lot less time to react on the ice. Mottau, a highly skilled blueliner in college, knew that the only way to make these adjustments was to play. As his ice time began to dwindle in the opening few weeks of the season, he was assigned to Hartford of the American Hockey League after eight games in the bigs.
"That was a shock to me," he recalled. "But it's all part of the development process. They didn't want me sitting on the bench, so they told me that they wanted me to play 20-30 minutes in Hartford, so that when I do get back (to New York), I'll be ready to play."
And play he did. In Hartford, Mottau notched 10 goals and 33 assists for 43 points, along with 45 penalty minutes in 61 games. His 43 points ranked fifth on the club and led all Wolf Pack defensemen. His strong play earned him AHL All-Rookie Team honors. But more importantly, his increased ice time helped to foster a confidence that he needed to develop. Hartford Head Coach John Paddock often sent the skilled defenseman out on the ice in key situations and Mottau soaked up every opportunity possible to improve his game.
Mottau's hard work and improvement didn't go unnoticed within the organization, as he was summoned by the Rangers on March 11. He finished the season with three assists in 18 NHL games, but more importantly he earned a glimpse of his life-long dream.
"Earlier on in the season in Hartford, it was a bit of an adjustment for me to professional hockey in general," said Mottau. "After the holidays, I thought I started playing better. I got more confident out on the ice and adjusted to the size of the guys and the speed of the game. I think it was good for me to get my mistakes out of the way and feel comfortable doing it in Hartford. Being in New York and making those same mistakes would have definitely been a lot more magnified. It was great to have that experience in Hartford. Being called up late in the season, though, and getting a chance to play in some games at the NHL level was a great experience. I'm just looking forward to training camp next year and trying to win a spot on the New York roster."
One of the bright spots of being recalled, according to Mottau, was the opportunity to play alongside fellow Boston College standout Brian Leetch. There have been comparisons between the two players, which Mottau modestly downplays. But what he did offer is the value of playing with one of the NHL's elite backliners.
"He's one of the best defensemen in the world," Mottau said complimenting Leetch. "I've been able to take certain things from his game and try to apply it to mine. Brian is a real quiet guy, but when he does say something, it goes a long way."
Mottau knows that he needs to continue to improve his game in order to become a regular on the Rangers blueline next season. "I would say that my biggest goal is to try to get quicker. From college to the AHL, there is a huge jump in speed and from the AHL to the NHL is an even greater leap. Going back for the puck when it is dumped into your zone, you really don't have much time to react at the professional level. But I think that improvement comes with being in game situations and gaining that experience and that's what I'm hoping to achieve."
Rangers President and General Manager thinks highly of the 23-year-old. "I think he played well last season. He's certainly a step ahead of people in the intelligence department already. He's a good prospect."
Blueshirt Head Coach Ron Low also knows that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the young defenseman. "He's improved an awful lot," noted Low. "He's got a long way to go, but Mike's definitely a NHL player. He's got big-time abilities with the puck and his execution on the power play is outstanding. Now he's got to just continue to improve."
Mottau is really looking forward to proving himself next season at training camp, but smiled when asked to take a look back on the last year of his life. "It's been great. I just try to take things day by day, but when I do step back and look at where I am now and where I was last year, it's just unbelievable. I'm proud to be a part of this organization and to be a part of the New York Rangers. Hopefully next season I can be a regular NHLer and help the Rangers regain their winning ways."