With the first month of NHL free agency in the books, the New York Rangers have made a number of moves in an attempt to improve their chances at winning the Stanley Cup in 2013. Most signings have been completed and the blockbuster trade that brought Rick Nash to the Big Apple is in the past. Now, Glen Sather and staff must look to the future in order to complete their roster before kicking off the upcoming season, and while often-incapacitated defenseman Steve Eminger is not likely to re-up with the squad, the drudgery of signing Michael Del Zotto now borders on urgency.
Early in July the Rangers presented Del Zotto with a qualifying offer that would retain the 22-year-old for years to come. Since then, the two sides have been working on a deal but there has not been much in the line of progress. Some suggest that Del Zotto is a bona fide D-man for the NHL while others point to his “sophomore slump” as an indication of his true character.
It is true that Del Zotto did struggle throughout his second year with the Rangers, being limited to only 47 games, registering 11 points and a team-worst plus / minus rating of -5. While his rookie season was considered a success, especially considering he made the score-sheet thirty seven times, his defensive game needed work, as the youngster recorded a dismal -20 in goal differential.
In 2011/2012, however, the budding defensive star showed his true worth and became the poster boy for athletes coming of age. From the first day of training camp, there appeared to be a marked improvement in Del Zotto’s game. He seemed to be a man who had grown into his body during the offseason and came into camp prepared to make his mark in the NHL. Rangers beat writer Andrew Gross noted that he looked “much stronger in the first day of training camp. Del Zotto worked hard in the offseason with the Rangers’ strength and conditioning coach Reg Grant. It particular DZ looks strong in the upper body and arms. He could be in for a big year if he can crack the roster out of camp.”
Placing 5th in team scoring last season, Del Zotto recorded a career high 41 points, averaged over 25 shifts per game, and more than 22 minutes of ice time, becoming a fundamental asset while fellow defender Marc Staal recovered from a concussion. More incredibly, Del Zotto not only improved his offensive game, but thrived under Head Coach John Tortorella’s “defense first” movement, turning his – 25 goal differential over the previous 2 seasons into + 20 in 2011/2012.
Del Zotto has surely revealed that he is a player capable of anchoring the Rangers blue line over the next number of seasons, and with a current cap hit of $1.08 million, the restricted free agent has been a steal to date. While some sources speculate that $1.75 million is a “fair offer” for Del Zotto’s services, $2.5 million would be a more reasonable salary given his contributions to the team.
Michael Del Zotto was 17th in scoring among all NHL defensemen last season, 18th in total points by blue liners and 12th in plus / minus. His on-ice production landed him directly in the middle of Chicago’s Duncan Keith (19th) and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang (17th) in terms of scoring. Capgeek.com confirms that Keith currently carries an annual cap hit of $8 million, while Letang hauls in $3.5 million annually. What’s more, last season Del Zotto recorded more assists than Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Christian Ehrhoff, Tobias Enstrom, P.K Subban and even Shea Weber, who just earned himself a 14-year, $110 million contract.
Del Zotto also ranks among the best in other defensive stats as well. He has logged ice time akin to that of Sergei Gonchar or Keith Yandle, both of whom make $5+ million dollars. His penalty minutes last season stood at only 36, similar to that of up-and-coming star Alex Pietrangelo and NHL veteran Matt Carle, showing that he has become smarter defensively. Pietrangelo currently holds a cap hit of $875,000 and will surely be making significantly more in years to come, while Carle is another $5+ million defender.
Michael Del Zotto surely has experienced the highs and lows of being a professional hockey player, but recently has proven to the hockey world that he belongs among the ranks of the best. He has taken a demotion to the AHL in stride and chalked it up to being part of the learning process; He has experienced the rare joy of participating in the Winter Classic, embracing something many do not have the experience to be a part of; and he has experienced the elation and grief of contributing to a magical Stanley Cup run that fell just short of the goal.
So what is Michael Del Zotto worth in today’s hockey market? Is he worth $1.75 million as widely suggested? Is he worth $2.5 million? Maybe, he is worth more and has the potential to become one of the league’s premiere defensemen alongside his counterparts Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal. Whatever the price, it is essential that Glen Sather and company lock up Del Zotto, keeping him in the Empire City for many years to come.