11 February, 15:18

NHL 1-on-1: Michael Del Zotto and Nashville's primetime D corps

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VR)— To our mind, the biggest mid-season move in the NHL this year was the New York Rangers’ trade of young defenseman Michael Del Zotto to the Nashville Predators for veteran defenseman Kevin Klein. Del Zotto has a much higher ceiling than Klein, and has demonstrated ample potency at generating goals, which are at such a high premium in today’s NHL. The Rangers tried to justify the trade by reference to their need for a right-shooting defenseman (Klein is a righty and plays the right side, Del Zotto is a lefty and prefers the left), but it seems obvious that new coach Alain Vigneault was not seeing eye-to-eye with Del Zotto, and wanted him moved. We suspect not only that Nashville fleeced New York in the deal, but foresee that the defense corps now taking shape in Nashville could soon be the best in hockey. The rest of the league should take immediate notice.

Del Zotto’s offensive prowess is well known. He broke into the Rangers’ lineup at age 19 in 2009—the youngest defenseman to play for the team in 35 years--and put up 37 points as a rookie in the 2009-10 season. He was fifth on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 31 assists in his next full season, 2011-12. He is agile under pressure in his own end, and so can carry pucks out of danger. And he sees the ice well, allowing him to spring his forwards with long outlet passes significantly better than the average defenseman.

carrying it out

Carrying it out, eyeing a long pass    Photo credit: © Elsa, AFP

Moreover, having grown up in the NHL under coach John Tortorella, Del Zotto is fully attuned to playing tight, conservative defense and blocking shots. In one of his first games with Nashville (at Winnipeg), he dove at a shooter headfirst in one desperate moment (the Jets scored on the play, but it was not Del Zotto’s fault).

Tortarella training

Tortorella training evident: getting down to block a shot   Photo credit: © Elsa, AFP

Del Zotto comes to Nashville as a fully capable NHLer, in other words. But what makes us so optimistic about him as a Predator is the company he will be keeping there. Nashville's defense coach is none other than Phil Housley, a peerless maestro with the puck and a good communicator. Housley is likely to get more out of Del Zotto than anyone. Further, Nashville General Manager David Poile has now assembled a full deck of high-end defensemen. The headliner, of course, is Team Canada stalwart Shea Weber. But the Predators also have teenage sensation Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, and the superlative Roman Josi, whom we profiled earlier in this series. Del Zotto will be working every day amid top blueline talent.

When we asked Coach Trotz how easy it would be to integrate Del Zotto into his D group, he emphasized that Del Zotto arrived in town as a good fit, because his game is reasonably similar to that of some Predators' defensemen {he probably had Ellis and Jones in mind first of all}.

For all the talent Nashville has assembled on defense, Del Zotto will get plenty of ice time. Unlike Alain Vigneault of the Rangers, Trotz told us he wants Del Zotto contributing on the penalty kill right away:

"He's one of the older defensemen we have right now. He's got a good stick, he's got good feet, he can move the puck, and he's got pretty good battle skills. So, coming over to us, we have Shea Weber, we have Ryan Ellis, we have (Seth) Jones, I said 'You might not get as much time on the power play to start, because we don't have much practice time now, so maybe we'll focus on the penalty kill.' We lost a real good penalty killer in Kevin Klein. I know Del Zotto has done it in the past in New York, and I said that's where he can probably make his mark right now. Then we'll get to the Olympic break and get some power play time with him, and start integrating him into the power play as well. I think he's bought into that, he sees that with our group, so he's been a real good fit."

Trotz might have added that Nashville is looking forward to the return of elite golatender Pekka Rinne, who has been out since October 22 after discovery of an infection in his hip. Even without Rinne, the Predators have climbed from 11 points out of a playoff spot in December to just 4 at the Olympic break. Rinne might be back soon, allowing the team a shot at getting to the postseason (prognosticators say they will need to go something like 14-6-3 down the stretch to have a 50% chance at it). Whether they get there or not, the team's blueline is a very solid foundation for the future.

MDZ summer

Del Zotto striking a pose last summer Photo credit: © Robin Marchant, AFP

We sat down with Del Zotto to get behind the scenes with his integration into the Predators. We found him quite open, relaxed, and confident, in keeping with the atmosphere around the team these days.

1-on-1 with Michael Del Zotto: Nashville the perfect fit

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Kerans: I haven’t been following the Rangers a lot, but I have followed the comments from your new GM (David Poile), your new coach (Barry Trotz), and your new D coach (Phil Housley), and they talk about how good you are as an offensive player. You mentioned in one interview that you think of yourself as a two-way player, but if I were to ask you how you would have described yourself a few years ago in Junior, would it be just the same? Were you a different guy, were you more physical? Or were you just Michael Del Zotto?

Del Zotto: In Junior I was just more of a straight offensive guy. I’ve worked on the defensive side of my game quite a bit in the last few years. To play in this league you’ve got to be able to play on both sides of the puck, so I’ve just tried to work on my game and become a complete defenseman.

Kerans: When you showed up did Housley have a lot to say to you? Or did Trotz? Which one of them briefed you more? Did they tell you a lot about what they like (in your game) and what they expect?

MDZ coaches

Trotz and Housley like what the see in Del Zotto     Photo credit: © Freederick Breedon, AFP

Del Zotto: Yeah, we mostly talked about systems, and to be patient, and whatever position I’m put in, just play to the best of my ability. There’s been a lot of communication, they’ve been great with me. It’s been a fun start so far.

Kerans: Did you ever see Housley play?

Del Zotto: Uhh…

Kerans: {interrupting} I know you mentioned Bobby Orr in more than one interview {as the player he most looked up to}

Del Zotto: {laughing} Yeah, he was a little younger than him (than Orr)…

Kerans: Housley was pretty special too…

Del Zotto: Yeah he was obviously an unbelievable player in his day, and having him back there and being able to learn from him every day is only going to make me a better player.

Housley

Housley near the end of his career, as US captain during the 2000 World Championship 

Photo credit: © Anatoly Maltsev, EPA

Kerans: Let me ask you about one thing I noticed, and it could just be an optical illusion, but it looks like your stick is a little bit shorter than the average defenseman. Is it true? How high up does it go?

Del Zotto: To the bottom of my chin. I don’t know, I’m not sure what other guys have here. Maybe a shorter one’s better for puck handling, but some guys use a longer one for their reach and being able to get to pucks. But I think it’s a personal preference for every guy.

Kerans: You’ve just come from another team, so how would you compare the goaltenders in terms of chat on ice? How much instructions, how much are they barking at you? One goalie’s not always the same as another one. You’ve been playing here in Nashville only a few games, but is there much difference in terms of communication?

Del Zotto: I think with everyone, again, same thing: every player is different, they have different personalities, different strengths on the ice. So it’s just a matter of gaining chemistry and getting used to each one.

Kerans: Are you getting used to your goalies here?

Del Zotto: Yeah, absolutely. They’ve done a great job, a lot of communication. Again, it’s been the same with the goalies, players, everyone just communicating and trying to gain chemistry.

Kerans: You had a crazy shift at the end of the game in Winnipeg {January 28}. You probably remember it, it went on and on, looked like it would never end. I’m sure you were fed up with it, but eventually you were the guy who cleared the puck. I’m sure you were out of gas, but what happens in a situation like that? I mean, do you just start running on instinct? Do you just go on, or do you say to yourself “Alright, the pucks on the boards, I’m going to take a breath, I’m going to get my energy back.” You remember that shift, right?

Del Zotto: Yeah, yeah. It depends on the situation. Usually when you are out there for a while you just try to pack it in tight, eliminate all chances from the inside and try to keep them to the perimeter, and when you do get an opportunity to be aggressive and jump, you get on the puck and try to get it out…

Kerans: Well, you did…

Del Zotto: (chuckling) …and try to catch air on the bench.

Kerans: I noticed that was also at the end of a period, the third period, at the end of a four-game road trip, and you only had five defensemen for the third period, so you were getting a lot of time (on ice), so you were probably even a little bit more tired then, right? But you had your stamina—that’s my question, is your stamina okay?

Del Zotto: Yeah, absolutely. You talk to anyone—the more they play, the more they feel comfortable, and yeah, my stamina definitely isn’t an issue.

Kerans: This team (Nashville) is playing you shorthanded, and I don’t think the Rangers did, if I saw the stats right. Did they give you a special talk on shorthanded play, or did they really trust you? I’m sure you like it…

Del Zotto: I’ve played PK my whole life, and in New York the last couple of years, just not this year. So I’m familiar with it. Every team’s different with their systems and how they want to play it, and again it’s just a matter of getting used to it and becoming comfortable.

Kerans: You have played a lot against New Jersey. There are a few things that are specific to them, or so the story goes. A couple coaches, one was Florida’s, said well, they’ve got a different neutral zone system, it’s something you don’t see a lot of. You are more used to it, I guess. But there are maybe three things we would emphasize with New Jersey that are a little bit different. There are a lot of big guys that play a lot on the boards, that’s one. A little bit different in the neutral zone. And maybe they are not so fast. Is that sort of the way you look at this game?

Del Zotto: They are very conscious defensively, they do a great job of limiting your opportunities, and they don’t give much, especially off the rush. Great goaltending, great team defense, and they are a very hard working team. So it’s a tough team to gain much offense against, and it’s definitely a grinding type game.

Kerans: Have you played much against Jagr?

Del Zotto: Well yeah, I mean the last couple of years. And he’s still, even at his age, is still an unbelievable player. He’s so hard to knock off the puck, and it’s showing this year with his stats and his play.

Kerans: One of my last ones here: how old were you when you really were committed to being a defenseman? I talked to (Nashville teammate and Swiss Olympian) Roman Josi a few months ago, and he pointed out that just one year, they didn’t have enough defensemen, and that was how he became a defenseman, he really liked it. Some guys like it because they have more time on the puck maybe, or nobody is covering them maybe when they go up forward, or they get more ice time (as defensemen) when they are growing up. How did it happen with you, and did it happen automatically or how?

Del Zotto: No, I was a forward until I was about, I want to say eleven or twelve. The strength of my game is my vision, and my dad kind of saw that I always quarterbacked the power play, and my dad was the one who recommended I make the switch. I end up doing it, and if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t be here today.

Kerans: Was he a player?

Del Zotto: Yeah, he played Junior back in Toronto. He watches every game, and he and the rest of my family have been so supportive. He’s tough on me, but he knows how well I can play, how great of a player I can be, and he gives a lot of feedback.

Kerans: Have you noticed if you have had more success when you are playing with the first line? I mean, you are a skill player, so the average fan would think, “well, if I am a skilled player I’d rather play with the big skill guys.” But it’s not always like that. You play were you are needed…

Del Zotto: Well it doesn’t always work that way, sometimes you are put in defensive situations, and it really depends where a faceoff is on the ice, or there’s so many situations that go on in a game. So it’s not always going to be playing with your top offensive guys. It’s a matter of knowing who you are out on the ice against, and what opportunities arise.

Kerans: And what makes you the best player you can be? You said you have been trying to become a better defensive player, and I’m sure you’ve got some ideas on that. And just staying really sharp—are you the type of guy who needs a lot of ice time so that you are feeling the puck really well, and seeing everybody?

Del Zotto: Yeah, any offensive guy, I think the more you play, the more you feel the puck, the more comfortable you feel with it. And that allows you to make plays. But also when I’m being successful I’m moving my feet, I’m being physical, which allows the rest of my game to come.

Kerans: This is my last one here: have you noticed in your four games so far (with Nashville) that you get a lot of post-mortems with Housley, where he spends a lot of time going over video, or he says “I really want this ”? Is he really micromanaging you a lot, or does he trust your instincts?

Del Zotto: Yeah, he’s let me play, and I think that’s been the best thing obviously. When there is a teaching clip or if there’s something going on he’s there to help. But I think that definitely helps when they just allow you to play your game and be comfortable. It’s been a good start, and I’m just trying to get better each day and fit in with the team here.

Kerans: I wish you a lot of luck.

Del Zotto: Thank you.

NHL, VOR's NHL, Nashville Predators, Michael Del Zotto, Del Zotto interview
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