TORONTO – For New York Rangers rookie defenceman Michael Del Zotto, Toronto is always a great place to play.
The 19-year-old marked his second return to Southern Ontario with 16:39 minutes of ice time in a 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday.
“It’s an awesome feeling, having family and friends in the stands,” said the Stouffville, Ont., native, who previously scored a power-play goal in his first return to Toronto. “We had a day off yesterday, so it was nice to spend time with my family.”
The former Ontario Hockey League star with Oshawa and London admitted to being a Maple Leafs fan growing up (“You kind of had to be.”), but bleeds Rangers’ blue now. And he said the loss and the fading playoff hopes for his team put a damper on the homecoming.
“It was unfortunate we didn’t get the two points tonight,” he said.
No matter how the season ends for the Rangers – now in 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points out of a playoff spot with seven games to play – Del Zotto has been a nice addition to the New York lineup. His nine goals and 34 points have him fifth in team scoring.
Del Zotto also has grown into the role of power-play quarterback for the Rangers, something he didn’t expect but is proud of.
“It shows the coaching has faith in me,” said the 20th overall pick of the 2008 draft. “It’s a responsibility I’ve enjoyed and something I’m going to keep working on.”
No other New York skater has spent as much time on the ice with the man advantage than Del Zotto this season, and only star sniper Marian Gaborik has more power-play points.
Among NHL freshmen defencemen, only Buffalo’s Calder Trophy candidate Tyler Myers has more points than Del Zotto, who is seventh overall in rookie scoring.
But, as with any first-year player – especially a defenceman – there have been growing pains. After Saturday’s game Del Zotto is minus-23 for the season, worst on the Rangers and fifth worst in the entire league.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Del Zotto said when asked about learning to be defensively responsible in the NHL. “As long as I’m responsible in my own end, the offence will take care of itself.”