The Philadelphia Flyers lost one of their most reliable defensemen on Saturday afternoon, when Michael Del Zotto went down with a wrist injury. After being run out of New York by Alain Vigneault, Del Zotto’s future looked uncertain in the NHL, but over the course of his two seasons in Philadelphia, Del Zotto has regained his status as a reliable offensive threat with defensive capabilities on defense.
Let’s take a look at the rollercoaster career Del Zotto has put together and why his loss will hurt the Flyers.
Del Zotto jolted onto the NHL scene from the moment his first preseason began. Drafted by the New York Rangers 20th overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Del Zotto played 18:58 per night in 80 games as a teenager in 2008-09. He led the Rangers’ defense in goals, assists and points, in addition to leading the entire roster in power-play assists. Simply put, Del Zotto looked like he belonged in the NHL from day one.
Del Zotto suffered a sophomore slump, of sorts, in his second season in New York, seeing his points per game total drop in half. It was the first major adversity the young defenseman would face in the NHL, but certainly not the last. Del Zotto responded by more than doubling his points per game in the following season, the 2011-2012 campaign.
In that season, Del Zotto scored a career-high 41 points, leading the Rangers defense in goals, assists and points once again. The shining moment of Del Zotto’s playoff career came in the 2012 postseason, when he scored the series-clinching goal against the Washington Capitals in Game 7.
At age 21, Del Zotto was primed to become one of the best offensive defensemen in the game. He even refined his defensive game, earning enough votes to finish 12th in the Norris trophy voting.
The progression continued defensively despite a minor drop-off in points per game in the 2012-13 season. With Vigneault taking over as head coach for the 2013-14 season, expectations were high for both the Rangers and Del Zotto. Unfortunately for the Canadian defenseman, expectations were only met on the Rangers’ side.
Vigneault has a reputation of preferring defensive-defensemen or two-way defensemen over offensive-defensemen, because they carry less risk. Del Zotto was never going to play a game without risk, so his ice time dropped from 23:10 per night to 17:45 per night. He was a healthy scratch often, failed to see his offensive game reach expectations and looked completely void of confidence.
Considering all of those factors, Rangers management was able to recognize Del Zotto’s offense-first game would never fit in Vigneault’s risk-free system, so New York moved the homegrown talent to the Nashville Predators for Kevin Klein. Del Zotto spent a short, uninspiring stint in Nashville before signing with the Flyers for the 2014-15 season.
The Flyers are known for being an offense-first team with zero hesitancy to let defensemen join the rush and make risky plays. With that, they were and remain the perfect fit for Del Zotto. He was able to regain the confidence he had lost, doubling his point total in three fewer games.
In a situation reminiscent of the early years of his career, Del Zotto led the Flyers’ defense in goals and finished second in assists and time-on-ice. Del Zotto restored his go-to-guy status and the promise his career once had in his first season in Philadelphia.
The 2015-16 season has seen Del Zotto take a more well-rounded approach on defense — leading the Flyers in ice time, he must be a reliable player in all three ends. With that, the points have diminished some, but with the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere on defense, Del Zotto has been relied upon less.
Del Zotto is now playing the reliable hockey he once played for the Rangers, only for their rivals instead. While the Rangers will not see Del Zotto in action Sunday night when the two teams meet due to his injury, the Flyers defenseman will have many chances to cause his old club to regret ever letting him go.
Statistics via Hockey Reference