Piecing together what we do know makes what we don’t know about Michael Del Zotto all the more mysterious.
We know the Nashville Predators traded steady stay-at-home defenseman Kevin Klein to get Del Zotto, a talented but inconsistent puck-moving blueliner, this past winter.
We know Del Zotto struggled to do what he did best, scoring once and adding just four assists in 25 games with Nashville. Then-coach Barry Trotz said Del Zotto’s game had slipped and, and he criticized Del Zotto’s decision making.
We know the Predators decided not to extend Del Zotto, a restricted free agent, a qualifying offer after the season, and that GM David Poile said Del Zotto “wasn’t a fit.”
We know Del Zotto, despite his growing reputation as difficult to coach, is just 24 years old. And we know Nashville decided center Mike Ribeiro, 34 and with well-documented off-ice problems, was safe to sign.
Lastly, Poile declined to say anything more on Del Zotto when I asked him to discuss the topic this week. More telling: Poile wasn’t declining an interview. He gladly obliged and we talked about his team. But he actively refused to comment on Del Zotto.
It all paints a cloudy picture of how Del Zotto is perceived, especially when he’s yet to sign with an NHL team into August. Speaking to Del Zotto and those close to him doesn’t cast him as prima donna at all. He’s living with Tyler Seguin in Toronto this summer (save your jokes), and the two are training hard under renowned guru Matt Nichol.
“He’s been unbelievable for me so far,” Del Zotto said of Nichol. “I took two weeks off after the season and got right back into it. It’s been a phenomenal summer of training.”
Del Zotto reached out to Nichol, who didn’t know what to expect with not just a new player, but a pro athlete with a pre-established workout regimen. Del Zotto demanded to be the first guy in the gym at the crack of dawn. Nichol was blown away.
“I base my opinions of players on my personal experiences with them,” Nichol said. “I’ve only known Michael for three months, and in those three months, he’s proven that there’s nobody I train who’s more disciplined and dedicated to what we’re doing. He’s on time every day, he’s meticulous about what he eats, he keeps a food journal showing me everything he’s eating. In the gym, he’s a great teammate. He cheers, he encourages other players. A number of times, he’s asked for additional work.”
Nichol says Del Zotto has worked hard on becoming a more complete player, training to add strength and power to the high-end speed and agility he already possesses.
“We have weekly meetings where he’ll sit down and ask me how I think he’s doing, what he needs to improve on, what can be better,” Nichol said. “He’ll give me feedback about how he feels, areas where he thinks he can work hard, and he takes a real interest in it. He’s pushing other guys in the gym. He’s not shy to grab a guy and say ‘Hey, come on, we can squeeze another rep out, who’s with me?’ I’ve been very impressed with not just his work ethic, not just his performance, but the way he carries himself and his character.”
When the man who trains Del Zotto and interacts with him every day can’t say enough good things about him, it’s natural to assume there’s a lineup out the door for Del Zotto’s services. Nothing yet, even if half the teams in the league have been linked to him in rumor mills.
Dallas sure would make sense. There’s the Seguin connection, and the Stars’ No. 1 need is a young offensive defenseman. That’s why they drafted Julius Honka 14th overall in June. Why not bring in Del Zotto to keep the seat warm? I asked Del Zotto about it, and but he didn’t take the bait, tossing out a generic answer about what a dream it is to play for any team. Fair enough. In the meantime, he’ll keep training hard. And he has no problem admitting he has a chip on his shoulder
“I’ve always worked hard in the off-season, that’s no change,” Del Zotto said. “This summer it’s more mental than anything. It’s just being prepared for this upcoming season, trying to get back to my game, what I can do, what I can bring to whatever team I do go to, and proving all the people wrong about how last season went. To show how I can play on the ice and how I’ve proven to play in the past.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin