VOORHEES, N.J. — When he was a New York Ranger, defenseman Michael Del Zotto had 44 power play points in a little over three full seasons worth of games.
He was barely 22-years-old at the time. Two years later, he became a Flyer.
A lot has changed since his rookie season in 2009-10.
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“What I’m most happy about with my game is just the overall defenseman I’ve become,” said Del Zotto, who took some criticism in the New York media at the start.
“There were a lot of knocks on me defensively, early on in my career. I take a lot of pride playing against the other team’s top lines, penalty kill. It’s a very different situation. Earlier in my career, I was more a power-play guy. Just trying to create points.
“I’ve worked hard on my game on and off the ice as to what it takes to become a pro and what it takes to win. It’s not always making that highlight-reel play. Sometimes, it’s blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play.”
That’s called maturing as a player.
Del Zotto joined the Flyers lineup for the first time last weekend in Montreal after missing 12 games with a left knee sprain, on top of missing the final 28 regular season games and playoffs following left wrist surgery last season.
That’s a ton of missed hockey for a guy the Flyers have relied upon in terms of bringing more two-way production and responsibility on the ice.
Ron Hextall labeled it best: ‘defensive blunders’ in front of the Flyers net have to stop and Del Zotto is a guy who the team has missed in helping limit some of those mistakes.
“Michael has been out for a month … He missed a lot of hockey last year and now he’s missed another month … he has to keep building his game and moving forward,” said coach Dave Hakstol.
This is a critical year for Del Zotto as his two-year, $7.75 million contract expires in June. He will be a coveted free agent looking for much larger bucks ($3.875 million cap hit).
Simultaneously, this is an interesting time for the Flyers, who are importing their younger, home grown defensemen and have a slew more waiting in the minors to join them.
“I’ve found a home here, I’m really happy with how things went,” Del Zotto said. “I came in here and they gave me an opportunity to play. I think I’ve made the most of that opportunity and I haven’t looked back from there.”
Del Zotto had 34 points (seven on the power play) his first season as a Flyer. His wrist injury prevented him from surpassing those totals last season (16 points; one on PP). He rehabbed hard to get off to a good start here after wrist surgery, but the knee sprain in training camp felled him.
On the other hand, his injury allowed the Flyers some LTIR cap relief and enabled them to keep rookie Ivan Provorov here without losing a defensemen via a roster move.
Del Zotto appears in pretty good shape but it’s just two games (one assist). Del Zotto played 21 minutes against Montreal, heavy minutes for a guy starting the season off an injury.
“Conditioning has never been an issue,” he said. “That’s something I take pride in. How hard I work off the ice. It was never an issue of coming back and not being in shape or being able to handle the minutes.”
The Flyers have back-to-back games Friday in Toronto and then Saturday night at home against Minnesota. It will be their fifth set of back-to-backs – and Del Zotto’s first.
He doesn’t care. He wants as much ice time as he can get to make up for missed time. The 12 games spent watching from the press box ate at him.
“I was hungry to get back in,” he said. “There’s not much you can do watching up. The game is a lot slower up there. There’s little reads, little plays that you can’t see on the ice just because it happens so quickly. I was hungry to come back in.”
And hoping to stay in the lineup the remainder of the season.
The short, happy life of Matt Read on the first line has ended after the Detroit loss. He was back on the fourth line with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Roman Lyubimov. The latter was recalled from the Phantoms on Thursday. By sending Lyubimov to the Phantoms on Wednesday, the Flyers saved one day on the salary cap … Five of the NHL’s top 11 rookie scorers will be on the ice Friday night at Air Canada Centre when the Flyers meet the Maple Leafs … Chris VandeVelde appears to be the healthy scratch against the Leafs as Nick Cousins returns after a two-game absence to center Michael Raffl and Dale Weise … Steve Mason starts in goal.