NOBLETON, ONT. — Michael Del Zotto’s eye looks the way his ego must feel.
Swollen and bruised four shades of purple, the left-shooting defenceman’s right eyebrow is accented by three royal-blue stitches. During a two-on-one drill Wednesday he blocked a rushing forward’s shot. The puck nicked off Del Zotto’s blade, deflected upward and smashed him in the face.
“Not too pleased to take one off the eye in the middle of July. It doesn’t count on the stat sheet,” Del Zotto says, trying to make light of a painful moment. “A little swelling as you can see, so I had a tough time waking up this morning.”
The 24-year-old Stouffville, Ont., native has probably had 17 tough mornings this summer, working to mend an invisible wound that cannot be sutured by plastic thread. He’s a heralded first-round draft pick without a team, a young talent that fell out of favour with two NHL franchises in the span of less than 12 weeks. The first he watched battle for the Stanley Cup; the second limped well out of playoff contention.
When the TV cameras at The Fourth Period golf tournament click off Thursday morning, Del Zotto admits this July is the lowest point in his career as a hockey player. We’re 17 days into the NHL’s open market, and well over half a billion dollars have been lavished on dozens of unrestricted free agents. Del Zotto sits unemployed, watching everyone from Paul Stastny to John Scott land new gigs.
“The whole season overall wasn’t how I wanted it to be. It was unfortunate losing your confidence early. It’s a confidence game. So I’m just trying to get it back this summer,” he says. “I know what I can do and can provide a team. I’ve done it in the past; I’m just trying to get there again.”
The point-a-game OHL stud was drafted 20th overall by the New York Rangers. He made the NHL’s 2010 All-Rookie team and finished second among freshmen blueliners, scoring 37 points in 80 games. After a minor sophomore setback, in which he was demoted to the AHL for 11 contests, a refocused Del Zotto scored a career-best 10 goals and 31 assists in 2011-12, but he’s never matched those numbers since.
Del Zotto was getting third-pair minutes under New York coach Alain Vigneault, and last winter the Rangers openly shopped him. On Jan. 22, he was dealt to Nashville straight-up for stay-at-home Kevin Klein, and not the one you’re thinking of. Del Zotto finished the season with just 16 points and fell out of the top 100 point-getters among D-men. His ice time had been chopped by about five minutes a night.
“It wasn’t the right fit for me going [to Nashville]. I went over and started playing top-four minutes with [Seth] Jones. I thought we were playing well together. Their power-play was already running well, so I didn’t get any power-play minutes. And when you’re an offensive defenceman, those are the minutes you need to get to get your offensive side going—playing with the puck, getting your touches,” he explains. “There wasn’t many minutes available for me there. Unfortunately my time was short, but I enjoyed myself there. It was a great group of guys and a learning experience for me.”
Looking at the NHL’s list of UFAs available mid-July, one scans a ragtag collection of buyout victims (David Booth, Ryan Malone), potential retirees (Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Brodeur) and able role fillers (Lee Stempniak, Daniel Winnik). Then there’s Del Zotto, his best shifts still ahead of him if you trust that defencemen peak closer to 30. This is a guy who found it hard watching his friends in the Cup Final, who waited until his former Rangers teammates completed their two-month playoff run before texted them lest he interrupt their focus.
“It’s motivating. This summer is the hardest I’ve ever worked,” he asserts. “I’ve shown I can play both ends of the ice. Obviously the strength of my game is the offensive side, so putting up numbers for me is going to be key. Just trying to find the best fit for me to come in and play my game.”
Del Zotto has been talking to “a bunch” of teams—“obviously there’s interest,” he says—but won’t say which ones or how many.
“I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to prove myself again,” he says, “and prove everybody who’s doubted me wrong.”