Last August, wide-eyed 19-year-old Michael Del Zotto was anxiously preparing for training camp. He didn’t know what to think of Rangers head coach John Tortorella.
Or his new teammates.
Or whether he would be shipped back to juniors. All that’s in the rear-view mirror.
Today, after a season in which he was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team, the confident defenseman was back at the MSG Training Center for a workout and a photo shoot for Coke Zero, which is using him in a campaign for youth hockey programs in the tri-state area.
His dad, meanwhile, who joined him on the quick trip from Ontario, was organizing things at his son’s newly-rented West 61st Street apartment.
“I’ve got to be more independent, make more decisions on my own,” said Del Zotto. “I won’t be living with Boyler (teammate Brian Boyle) so I won’t have to keep correcting all the misinformation about him babysitting for me, as he told everyone. I can’t remember how many times I was the one waking him up in the morning, not the other way around.”
It’s a natural step in the maturation of Del Zotto, who cracked the Rangers roster last October, shot off to an impressive start, was anointed the power-play quarterback, hit a wall in mid-December through January with just four points in 25 games, was sidelined by a frightening 50-stitch gash in the chest from Evgeny Malkin’s skate just before the Olympics and finished with eight of his 37 points in the final 11 games.
“In that one year, I learned soooo much,” said Del Zotto, who turned 20 on June 24. “I woke up on my birthday and thought “Wow”. Some people feel young at 20, I felt old…Every day was a new experience; the travel and games, new players and coaches. Now that I’ve gone through it, I know what to expect. It’s a different kind of pressure, but I’m ready for it. I’m my own toughest critic and I have high expectations.”
Del Zotto, who has added about five pounds and declared himself in the best shape of his life, understands his critical role when the Rangers, who missed the playoffs by a point in the final game of the season, have the man advantage.
“It’s my job to get the power play going,” he said. “I’ve got to take a little more responsibility in that regard because I’m the one carrying the puck up the ice and I have to make the right decisions. We got off to a hot start and then teams started recognizing what we were doing and started changing what they do against us. They’ll do the same this season and it’s a matter of quick reactions to keep the power play going consistently. If we can, it’ll make a world of difference…Off the top of my head, I can remember five or six games where we had opportunities to either tie the game or go up and we don’t capitalize and they end up scoring. They get the momentum from the big penalty kill and it kills us.”
Those missing points could have lifted the Rangers into the post-season, said Del Zotto, who had 39 points in 40 playoff games in three years in the OHL.
“Look at Philly,” said Del Zotto, who will be back in New York for the duration on Sept. 1. “They finished eighth and they go to the final. Anything can happen, especially because we have Hank in the net. But first, we have to get there.”