Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Michael Del Zotto saw his production go down, but this season may nonetheless represent the turning point of his career.
When the Philadelphia Flyers picked up defenseman Michael Del Zotto off the NHL scrap heap, expectations were very low. He was purely an emergency signing in the wake of Kimmo Timonen’s career-threatening health issues, and any NHL player signing in August at around a million dollars is basically just happy to have an NHL job at all.
Del Zotto, a former first round pick, nevertheless revived his NHL career in that first season with the Flyers. He tied a career high with 10 goals, and in only 64 games. He was a real lifeline to a Flyers defense group that everyone loves to rag on, and it earned him a big pay raise with the Flyers.
Now 25, eyes are still on Del Zotto to ascertain what his long term NHL future will look like. One could look at his performance last season and a pedestrian stat line of 4 goals, 9 assists, and -8 in 52 games and say “not very impressive.” Those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
First off, there is much context to consider. Most obviously is usage. Del Zotto set a career high in ice-time, playing 23:25 a night. This led the Flyers. He also played in all situations, mostly on the second power play unit and featuring prominently as a penalty killer.
Second, Del Zotto got the tough 5v5 assignments.
This is a new role for Del Zotto. He’s always been an offensive guy, with usage more like what Shayne Gostisbehere saw this year. Instead, Michael Del Zotto was the de facto number one defenseman for the Flyers this year in terms of usage.
So how did Del Zotto respond to this challenge? Pretty well.
Del Zotto’s team relative on-ice shot attempt rates were at all time high (blue line), while his shot suppression rates were also his best (orange line). This was also his second ever season where his expected relative goal percentage was on the positive side.
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This is excellent growth in possession play, but then again, what gives with his -8 and lack of production? For one thing, he was a little less aggressive offensively. His average shot distance this season was about 15% longer than his previous seasons, and Flyers fans did not see him make those aggressive puck carries down the left boards that resulted in a handful of goals the previous season.
Second, Michael Del Zotto is seeing shrinking roles on the power play compared to early in his career. For the foreseeable future, he is #3 among Philadelphia Flyers defensemen amongst power play point men behind Ghost and Mark Streit.
Lastly, he may have just had some bad luck. Del Zotto had a team low PDO of 97.62, and the Flyers only shot at 4.57% when Del Zotto was on the ice (another team low). Even if Del Zotto was playing more conservatively and generating lower quality chances than teammates, that number will almost surely rise in the future.
All in all, the advanced “fancy” stats showed Del Zotto to do a pretty good job as the Flyers number 1 defenseman. He took on the tough competition, and walked away with good possession. Even if the goals didn’t come this year, it’s reasonable to expect better luck if he continues this performance.
Del Zotto will have another contract year coming up. I would expect he’s already reclaimed his NHL reputation somewhat, but the fit for Del Zotto as a true NHL number 1 defenseman may still feel al little odd. Next season, if Del Zotto plays the same role next year, puts up similar possession numbers, and bounces back on production and plus/minus, Flyers fans and NHL fans across the league will look at the 2015-16 season when Michael Del Zotto found his niche as reliable, big minutes NHL defender.