Saturday, November 20, 2010

Michael Del Zotto: What Now? Bench, Drop Down, Minors, Trade?

Obviously with a 20 year old defenseman, even one as talent as Michael Del Zotto, who is known more for his offense there will be some defensive lapses both in his natural growth as a young player but also as a player really learning how to play better fundamental defense.  My issue is not with the effort on his part or the fact that he is making mistakes, but rather with the sheer number, the fact that many of them are repeat mistakes and the source of many of them comes from trying to do too much and not being fundamentally sound.  Mistakes are part of that growth process in a young player, but how many times do you have to get caught on a pinch that you don’t get the man or the puck or turn the puck over in your defensive zone because you are forcing the stick handling before it stops being about being 20 or learning and just is what the play looks like; a bad play?

The question that came from last night’s thread over at Blueshirt Banter was what do we do about it?  The options vary, but are also somewhat limited based on the number of ready defenseman in the organization.  First and foremost anyone who is advocating giving up on a talent like Del Zotto, calling him a bust or suggesting trading him does not fully comprehend the talent they are dealing with.  Before I go on to the other options, let’s go back to see how we got here.

Del Zotto is an extremely talented second year defenseman who at 20 years old has had a lot asked of him by the Rangers organization.  There is no denying the skill level that Del Zotto, especially on the offensive end of the ice with his tremendous passing skills and unique vision to see the play develop offensively.  It is that skill that led the Rangers in my opinion to rush Del Zotto to the NHL and keep him there all of last season.  Del Zotto’s preseason and first nine games of the regular season made it virtually impossible to send him back because of how he showed he could potentially fill a long sought role in the organization of a power-play quarterback.  In that he could fill that role and the performances he put up early on he was kept here while everyone involved knew full well that his defensive skills were not up to par for the level.  Personally I believe that another year in Juniors would have done him a great deal not necessarily in tuning his offensive game but in developing his skills on the defensive side to be a more complete defender at this level. 

Overall in his first year offensively he was what they everything they could ask for scoring 9 goals and assisting on 28 others.  It was on the defensive side of the puck where the warts starting showing more and more as the season went on to the point where if they had been able to there are points where the organization probably would have, at least temporarily, considered sending Del Zotto to the minors.  He would end his rookie campaign with a -20 rating and while I am not a huge proponent of plus-minus as an indicator of how well a player played defensively it felt about right for Del Zotto and was telling when the closest defenseman to him was Dan Girardi at -2.

Beginning this season the expectations were that Del Zotto would improve some defensively while becoming a huge offensive weapon from the backline possibly putting up 50 points on the campaign.  What we have seen instead is a case of the sophomore slump where not only has his defense been atrocious at times, but his offense has slipped as well only collecting 5 points so far.  The lack of confidence is painfully evident in his almost all out refusal to shoot the puck even when wide open instead forcing passes to covered players. 

I do not know if his struggles defensively are impacting his offense or vice versa or if in trying to be better defensively he is over thinking his offense almost in a reverse Marc Staal type scenario.  What I do know is that performances like last night cannot be happening at this level and I don’t just mean the -4 because that was clearly his worst mark of the season, but I mean the way it happened and the way his defensive problems have manifested so far this season.  Last night multiple times he was caught on pinching plays where he didn’t get the puck or the man and led to odd man rushes and eventually goals for Colorado.  Other times the same thing happened and no goal was scored and there were also bad turnovers in his defensive end that led to scoring chances. 
That leaves us in the here and now and for me the options come down to bench him, drop him in the pecking order or send him to the minors.  Part of me wants to sit him for a game and just let him take a step back and watch to see the game from a different perspective and see how his fellow defense who while not always perfect themselves handle different situations.  I can go either way on that idea and understand the worry that a scratch might ding his confidence, but at some point as much as you worry about his psyche you have to let him know there are real consequences and accountability for bad play.  With the train wreck that is Hartford I have no desire whatsoever to send Del Zotto down there nor do I think it would do him much good at this stage of the process.  What I did suggest last night, have suggested before here, and will again now is dropping Del Zotto out of the top 4 defense at even strength. 

I think of it similarly to what the Rangers have just done with Derek Stepan when he was struggling which was to back him off a little bit, lower his responsibility, let him watch more from the bench while working on his game.  Steve Eminger, sans last night, has shown in the absence of Michal Rozsival that he can play a top four role for the time being and especially when Rozsival comes back I think that Eminger should stay up there and play with either he or Girardi in the top four allowing Michael Del Zotto to drop down to the 3rd pair with a steady defensive influence in Michael Sauer.  Sauer is a very good combination for Del Zotto as he is mainly a stay at home defensive defenseman who thinks about stopping the opposition first and foremost.  This will allow Del Zotto to work on his defensive fundamentals while playing against presumably less skilled competition, play less even strength minutes a game and rebuild some confidence in his game.  When he rebuilds that confidence and shows an improvement in the defensive fundamentals like they did with Stepan he can be moved back up if his play warrants it.  I know for some benching him for a game or moving him down in the pecking order will be seen as something that will destroy his confidence, but I think having better success on the ice will lead to increasing his confidence and thus releasing the tension that is his offensive game allowing him to produce how he is capable of.

Del Zotto this season has had tremendous defensive games and he has the size, talent and physicality to be a solid defensive player if he sticks to the fundamentals of the position, which is part of what makes the mistakes so frustrating.  With a player who lacks the talent to see them screw up is expected and you hate that it happens but you also expect it, but with Del Zotto because he can show he is better than what he has shown at times this season the frustration with the reversion back to correctable mistakes is that much more frustrating.  The Rangers have a very good potential defenseman and he will eventually figure it out after the bumps in the road, but we have to find a middle ground between throwing in the towel on him and excusing all of his mistakes because of age or offensive potential.

Leave me your take.