Rangers impressed by teenage defenseman Del Zotto

Rookies Michael Del Zotto #43 and Matt Gilroy

Rookies Michael Del Zotto #43 and Matt Gilroy #97 of the New York Rangers skate against the Washington Capitals during a preseason game. (September 24, 2009) (Credit: Getty Images)

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Michael Del Zotto is on the brink of earning a place in Rangers history this weekend.

Del Zotto, a poised, crafty young defenseman with a scoring touch, will become the first 19-year-old blueliner to debut for the Rangers since Brian Leetch on Feb. 29, 1988, who played his first game three days before his 20th birthday.

He also will become the youngest defenseman to play for the Rangers since 18-year-old Dave Maloney laced up his skates on Dec. 18, 1974.

After training camp, a prospects tournament and preseason schedule in which Del Zotto excelled, coach John Tortorella said yesterday: "He's going to start here with us. Right now, he has made the club, it has nothing to do with minors or juniors. We're not looking at age . . . His strength is obviously offense, but he's shown he's really willing to compete away from the puck and in his end zone. It's the responsibility of the coaches to teach him that part of the game - situational play - and not screw around with his offense and his creativity. We need to step out of the way there."

The Rangers open the season Friday in Pittsburgh and host the Ottawa Senators Saturday. Del Zotto's parents, Steve and Lee, his brother David and three buddies from home in Stouffville, Ontario, will be there.

"They really want to see [Sidney] Crosby," Del Zotto said of his pals after practice yesterday. "My parents are proud that I'm still here so far."

Perhaps they shouldn't be surprised. After all, Del Zotto - No. 20 overall in the 2008 draft - is the type of player the Rangers need, especially to quarterback the power play. Tortorella has said he likes Del Zotto's "arrogance" and willingness to "take a chance and make a play."

With the London Knights junior team last season, where he and John Tavares, the No. 1 pick by the Islanders, were teammates after a trade with the Oshawa Generals, Del Zotto was 6-24-30 in 28 games and 3-16-19 in 14 playoff games.

The Rangers do have the option of returning Del Zotto to juniors if he plays fewer than 10 NHL games, but the teenager who is fond of the style of players such as Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Washington's Mike Green has earned a shot to stick.

"I've never really been a guy to be nervous," said Del Zotto, who won't turn 20 until June 24. "I just try to take it a day at a time and play aggressive. I'm still learning just how much work you have to put in every day to be a pro and to learn the system the coaches have put in."

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