Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Michael Del Zotto Being Shackled By Tortorella?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty) When is the last time MDZ rushed the puck?
A lot has been said and even more written about the struggles Michael Del Zotto has had in his second season in the NHL.  In his rookie campaign Del Zotto put up impressive offensive numbers with 9 goals and 28 assists as a mere 19 year old defender and that left expectations for his offensive game coming into this season quite high.  On the defensive side Del Zotto struggled mightily in his rookie year recording a -20 plus/minus rating which is worse than most expected even with the common knowledge of his defensive deficiencies.  The argument for Del Zotto was that what he brought offensively offset his defensive shortcomings and that over time his defense would improve minimizing the downside and the upside of his offense would only continue to grow.  That scenario has not played out especially on the offensive side and so I want to explore coach John Tortorella is shackling his talent and causing him to force things in other ways.

What has happened this season in many respects is the exact opposite of the expectations for despite some horrific plays and games defensive overall he has played to an even rating, but his offense has suffered severely this year having only contributed two goals and seven assists thus far in 34 games.  The biggest place where the struggles on the offensive end have been evident is the power play.  Last season Del Zotto feasted as the quarter back of the power play finishing the season with four goals and eighteen assists with the man advantage.  Frankly it was his ability to run the power play that forced the Rangers to keep him with the club last season instead of sending him back to Juniors where he could have worked on defensive deficiencies for another season.  I do not want to talk about if it was a mistake to keep him here last year though I have said I believe it was, but what it is that is causing his struggles there and throughout his offensive game.

The struggles for Del Zotto got so bad that he was a taken off the power play and then out of the lineup altogether when he was a healthy scratch for the Rangers game at Ottawa on December 9th.  The goal of scratching Del Zotto for the game was to allow him to watch and see the game from a different perspective and possibly notice things he was missing on the ice while he was out there.  In the immediate aftermath of the scratch Del Zotto had a few good games and even showed some more offensive confidence, but then he had an awful game in the Rangers last game against the Flyers. 

His awful game last Saturday has led to calls for benching him again, possibly trading him or even sending him to the minors.  Personally I do not think any of those are the right move considering he would have to clear waivers to go to the minors, which he would not, and you do not trade 20-year-olds with Del Zotto’s level of talent, particularly for pennies on the dollar.  He will miss tonight's game with the stomach flu but he should be back in there when they play next.

For me what it has made me question more and more is his usage by this coaching staff.  You have a tremendously gifted offensive hockey player, but he has so many voices in his head talking to him about not screwing up defensively he has lost his natural instincts and is overthinking the game in all facets.  If you look at the majority of the defensive mistakes Del Zotto has made this season it has been from trying too hard to make the perfect play instead of making the simple one whether it be on the carry inside his own zone of the massive overuse of the stretch pass.  Interestingly enough neither of those things were the cause of his defensive ineptitude last season when it mainly positioning problems and overuse of the big hit taking himself out of the play.

The Ranger system is predicated on the dump and chase formulation and the stretch pass from defense to forwards as there is very little puck carry in any area of the ice.  There is no one hurt more by that belief system than Del Zotto who at his best is a puck carrying defender who can put pressure on the opposition in both the neutral and Rangers offensive zone causing matchup issues and mistakes in coverage to benefit the overall offense.  So why is it that no one talks about how little Del Zotto is allowed to carry the puck when they discuss the lack of creativity in the Rangers offense?

As an offensive and aggressive defender you have to have confidence that either when you do carry the puck or you pinch in the offensive zone that your partner has the ability to cover for you on the other end of the ice.  Playing Del Zotto with Michael Rozsival and his slower than molasses skating ability is not a way to instill that confidence and instead of being lambasted for being caught pinching MDZ just does not go forward in the same way he did last season.  If you had made a bet before the season about which Rangers defenseman would be the most aggressive in pinching and joining the rush I would guarantee Del Zotto would have won the pool and Marc Staal would not have been close and yet no one discusses the freedom Tortorella gives Staal now to join and pinch while Del Zotto remains a statue.

Del Zotto did not forget how to make a stretch pass in the course of a year from where last season they were tape to tape and this year they are right to the other team.  He did not forget how to run the power play, but now he is afraid to leave his spot on the point and pinch down for the back door plays that got him most of his goals and created angles for his assists on it.  The Rangers have managed to tame the “wild side” so much that he has forgotten what got him to the NHL in the first place. 
What I see is a young player who in the opposite scenario as Marc Staal came up with the offense and has been pushed on the defensive side that is having a similar reaction of being caught in the middle of using his natural instincts and being afraid to screw up and that always leads to screwing up.  In Staal’s case the solution was to let him get back to the basics of his game which is defensive principles and then his offensive would flow out of the confidence he regained. 

So how do they fix it?  Do what they did with Staal which is get off his case about fixing the other side of his game and let him get back to what he knows best.  One way to do that for Michael Del Zotto would be to put him with Michael Sauer and let Sauer be his Beukeboom where he can cover for mistakes made in being aggressive in the wrong situations while granting him the freedom to push the envelope offensively.  If you allow him the freedom to carry the puck in the neutral zone he will stop forcing the play in his own zone and trust the simple pass with Sauer to let the breakout happen naturally.  If you allow him the freedom to join the rush and carry the puck he will not force the stretch pass so much and when he makes it he will make it with more confidence in his game and amazingly it will be more accurate.  Everyone blames Tortorella for Avery’s struggles saying he does not let him play his game, it is time to do the same for Del Zotto.  It is time to take the bit out of his mouth and the reins off his neck and let him go play hockey like he has been doing his entire life before now.