Michael Del Zotto has played in every NHL arena except one: American Airlines Center in Dallas. After tonight he can cross that one off his list, as well, as Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault announced at the morning skate that Del Zotto would return to the team's lineup this evening against the Stars, taking the place of Justin Falk who will be scratched.
Del Zotto had been a healthy scratch the previous three games, as Vigneault was not pleased with the 23 year-old defenseman's inconsistent play. Vigneault has emphasized the past several days that people from within the organization have told him about Del Zotto's vast skill set, but that he has not seen it on a regular basis since becoming head coach of the Blueshirts.
"Tonight I just feel against Dallas that a puck-moving defenseman is probably more of what we need so we are going in that direction," Vigneault said of his decision on Thursday. "As much as I think Falk has played well, I think against a team like Dallas Michael should be able to step in here and contribute. He should be able to beat their forecheck, make good first passes, and if the opportunity is there in the neutral zone to jump up and join the rush, I want him to do that. And he's going to play on our second power play, so we need him to do a good job there, too."
Del Zotto, who had 21 points in 46 games a year ago and who had 41 and 37 points in his two-full NHL campaigns, has just one goal and four points in 16 games played so far this season. He has been scratched four times and missed one other game due to injury.
When he does return tonight, Del Zotto is aware that he is expected to generate more offense, while also playing well in his own end of the ice.
"I was out three games, come back in, I need to show something for them to have a reason to keep me in the lineup," explained Del Zotto Thursday morning. "I have something to prove coming back in tonight, and I'm excited to be back in there."
While it's a bit of a balancing act being an offensive defenseman with far-ranging responsibilities, it is also nothing new to Del Zotto who has juggled this since joining the NHL as a 19 year-old rookie back in 2009-10.
"I just have to play my game, it's all I can do," said Del Zotto. "Try and spark the offense a little bit, and be solid defensively. Try and contribute with whatever minutes I get, make the most of them. Sometimes you force things a little when you are struggling, so I just need to keep things simple and pick my spots."
Falk played in three straight games while Del Zotto was scratched, and filled the role of rugged stay-at-home defenseman particularly well against the a pair of big-bodied opponents in the Los Angeles Kings and the Boston Bruins the past two contests. Vigneault said he had considered scratching John Moore and keeping Falk in the lineup, but decided that against Dallas it made more sense to keep Moore in there considering his skating and play-making skills are more suited to this opponent.