As a developing NHL player, you really aren’t afforded much time before the “future star” label is replaced by “underachieving former prospect.”
Fortunately for Michael Del Zotto, who at 24 is looking to revive his career in Philadelphia, there is still ample opportunity to sway opinions. An added bonus comes from the fact that he’s seen his off-season roommate and friend, Tyler Seguin, accomplish just that.
There was absolutely no hesitation from Del Zotto when asked who he leaned on for support following a season that saw him dumped by the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators. Seguin has endured plenty of his own ups and downs in pro hockey, and seemed to have his reputation in tatters a year ago when Boston dealt him to Dallas.
After an 84-point season, that notion was quickly put to rest.
“One thing that made it easy for me is seeing all the nonsense that he went through with his trade and then he had a fabulous season,” Del Zotto told Sportsnet this week. “He helped me out a lot. I’m just ready to go.”
Positive influence also came from Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol, whose impact on the player’s mental state was just as important as the physical one.
Del Zotto seems upbeat and motivated as he embarks on a crucial stretch of his career. No one should doubt the ability of a man who showed so much potential as a boy, scoring nine goals and 37 points for the Rangers as a 19-year-old after jumping straight from junior.
Yet, he’s struggled too. First John Tortorella, then Alain Vigneault, then Barry Trotz — experienced NHL coaches one and all — have failed to get through to him. A few seasons ago there was a stint in the American Hockey League and late last year the Predators were making him a healthy scratch.
It’s extremely difficult to play defence at a young age in the NHL and as an offensive-minded player there will always be a fine line for Del Zotto to straddle.
To his credit, he accepts responsibility for the current state of his career. It’s something he had a lot of time to reflect on before signing a $1.3-million, one-year deal with the Flyers on Aug. 5.
“Last year didn’t go as well as I would have liked,” he said. “It wasn’t a reflection of the player I am. People are pretty quick to get all over you once things aren’t going well; there’s a lot of people out there that are doubting me and that just motivates me that much more. You’ve seen in the past that I can play in this league and put up good numbers and be a good solid player.
“I just have to go out there and show that again this year.”
In Philadelphia, Del Zotto could be landing in the right place at the right time.
There is a clear need for special teams minutes to be filled with Kimmo Timonen sidelined for months (if not permanently) by blood clots. There is also every indication that Del Zotto will be given an opportunity to assume his share of them.
The Flyers organization has long shown itself willing to take on reclamation projects — goalies Steve Mason and Ray Emery are two recent examples — and general manager Ron Hextall seems to understand exactly where Del Zotto is coming from.
"We look at a young player like Michael Del Zotto coming into the NHL at his age,” Hextall told CSN Philadelphia recently. “He has a lot of money. He’s got fame, he’s got people wanting to spend time with him and thinking he’s a big deal. Any 20-, 21-, 22- or 23-year-old, it’s pretty easy to get off the rails.
“I think that is what happened to him. I think in two years, he will look back and say, ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”‘
It is here where the comparisons to Seguin pop up again. As his case demonstrates, there are times when a young player can benefit from a change of scenery. A clean slate.
Del Zotto is enthusiastic about getting paired with Luke Schenn and the message from his new coaches has been to his liking as well.
“As long as I take care of my own end I have all of the freedom to play with the puck offensively and make plays in the offensive zone,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
The other night the Flyers played a pre-season game at Budweiser Gardens in London, the same city where Del Zotto wrapped up his Ontario Hockey League career in 2009.
Back in the Knights dressing room for the first time since then, I asked Del Zotto what he had learned about pro hockey in the intervening five and a half years.
“Quite a bit, quite a bit,” he said. “I think the best thing is consistency and knowing how you could have a great game one night and you have to be able to follow that up again. You have to be able to play consistently if you want to play in this league.”