TORONTO - When Michael Del Zotto broke into the NHL in 2009-2010 with the Rangers, the game seemed to come easy for him. He led the New York that season in scoring among defenseman and finished second among all rookie defenseman, including ahead of Erik Karlsson.
But it's been an up and down ride in the four years since for Del Zotto, a journey that included a demotion to the AHL in his second season, falling out of favour with the Rangers as a healthy scratch, and finally a trade to the Nashville Predators where he would play just 25 games before becoming a free agent.
Coach Barry Trotz suggested in March that “(Del Zotto's) game had slipped” and he was again relegated to the press box. When the season ended, Del Zotto did not receive a qualifying offer, leading the 24-year-old to unrestricted free agency after just five NHL seasons.
It took until August 5 before he finally caught on with another team, signing with the Flyers on a one-year, $1.3 million deal – a pay cut of $1.25 million on his annual salary the past two seasons.
“Yeah, it was a different summer for me,” Del Zotto admitted after day two of the BioSteel camp in Toronto on Tuesday. “Last season didn't go as well as I would have liked but it's been a very humbling summer but a very motivating summer.”
Del Zotto denied that he had taken for granted the success that he experienced early in his career.
“No I don't think so,” he said. “It's a tough league to play in. I had a couple good years and obviously last year didn't go as well as I would have liked but it's in the past. I don't really want to reflect on that.”
Now with 317 NHL games under his belt, the older, wiser – but still young – Del Zotto acknowledged the last year was a reality check for him and now he's determined to turn his career back in the right direction.
“I've never worked this hard, I feel very good mentally and physically with Matty Nichol (of BioSteel) here helping me out. I just can't wait for the season to start and prove a lot of people wrong.”
The biggest thing he's learned so far from his five NHL seasons? Making sure good outings are not one-offs and that long-term success at the NHL level requires consistency.
“The biggest thing you learn is you have to bring consistency to your game,” Del Zotto explained. “You could have one good game but you need to follow it up with another one. It's not about having one here or one there, it's a long season and obviously with playoffs too, you have to keep it consistent throughout that whole time.”
Recently, players similar to Del Zotto, but with less experience – Jake Gardiner and Justin Faulk – signed lucrative long term extensions. It would be easy for the Stouffville, ON native to wonder where he went wrong in his career but said there's little use in comparing himself to others right now.
“I don't like to really compare myself to any other players around the league,” he said. “I just want to be my own player and not reflect on that side of it.”
Del Zotto's opportunity came when Kimmo Timonen was diagnosed with blood clots in his right leg and both lungs in early August, leaving him out indefinitely and possibly putting his career in jeopardy. The loss left the Flyers with a need for a puck moving defenseman who can play on the power play, thus opening the door for Del Zotto.
“I know what I can bring to the Philadelphia Flyers and what I can do to help them out,” he said. “I'm confident in myself and confident I can get back to where I used to be.”