SUNRISE, Fla. - In another sign that Michael Del Zotto has slid far down the depth chart, the defenseman was benched again Tuesday, and the possibility of a trade is growing.
After a stretch in mid-November when Del Zotto was scratched for six of 12 games, he played in 10 straight while Marc Staal was recovering from a concussion. But Staal returned Tuesday and coach Alain Vigneault decided that Conor Allen, who played almost 16 minutes, including 6:59 in the third period, in his NHL debut in the 4-3 win in Tampa, deserved another shot.
Anton Stralman (wrist) also was ready to go and with both he and Staal coming back, and Allen and John Moore playing well, Del Zotto was edged out again.
"Dan [Girardi] and Mac [Ryan McDonagh] love big minutes, and with Staal and Stralman, those guys have been our top four defensemen this year," Vigneault said. "In the last two games, Michael was jittery with the puck, where it caused some turnovers and led to quite a few scoring opportunities for the other team."
An eighth defenseman, Justin Falk, also was scratched after dressing for seven straight.
Del Zotto has not provided the offense that Vigneault wants, with just two goals and five assists in 32 games. "At this stage, it's more up to him," Vigneault said. "He's supposed to able to beat the forecheck, join the rush at the right time, help out on the power play, and those things haven't been there on a consistent enough basis that he's an automatic shoo-in. He's fighting for that third pair D."
The Rangers beat the Panthers twice in November by a combined score of 9-5, but Vigneault said before the game: "Our guys look at the standings and see how important the games are; I could not envision anyone looking past this game." . . . Brad Richards, McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle and Girardi are the only players to appear in all 41 first-half games.