Thursday, January 23, 2014

Del Zastrous Days Are Done

The seeds of Michael Del Zotto's demise as a Ranger were sown on August 31st, 1995, when he was just five years old.

On that date the Rangers traded Sergei Zubov to the Penguins along with Petr Nedved for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson.

That disastrous deal helped lead to many del zastrous nights on Broadway. Zubov, for the youngsters out there, was a silky-smooth puck-moving defenseman drafted by the Blueshirts in 1990 that went on to lead the '93-94 Cup team in points.

Yes, it was Zubi and not Mark Messier who paced the team in points that illustrious season. Mind. Blown. I know. With Brian Leetch and Zubov controlling, moving and (often) shooting the puck, those Rangers owned the ice and, eventually, Stanley.

Why was Zubov the catalyst for DZ and not Leetch? Leetch was simply one of a kind, one of the best defensemen to ever step on the ice (and to slip on it … /rimshot). That being said, despite all of our fond memories, the American hero was heartbreakingly fading away in his old age and had become a shadow of himself by the time he was traded to Toronto. It's a hard truth to accept, but the injuries took their toll and he was no longer the dynamo that electrified the Garden.

We were weaned away from his greatness over years but the clean break of the Zubov trade left a vacuum on the blueline that was never properly filled by Neil Smith and Glen Sather. The two general managers plugged players in, but there were more pluggers than players in that most important of positions.

Bruce Driver, Alex Karpovtsev, Matt Schneider, Sylvain Lefebvre, Kim Johnsson, Vlad Malakhov, Bryan Berard, Tom Poti, Karel Rachuek, Thomas Pock, Max Kondratiev, Michal Rozsival, Wade Redden, Christian Backman, Dmitri Kalinin … are you crying yet? Because that list was typed through tears.

After 2006's top draft pick Bobby Sanguinetti began to bust, the Rangers attempted again in 2008 to select a dependable offensive defenseman. Overlooking John Carlson, Roman Josi and Justin Schultz (among others), Sather's crew selected Del Zotto with their first round pick, 20th overall.

During the next season DZ remained with Oshawa in the OHL and was traded midyear to London in a megadeal alongside some nobody named John Tavares. DZ then played 42 games for Dale Hunter's organization - 28 regular season and 14 playoff games. It would be far too few.

After that offseason DZ made a splash in Training Camp 2009 and the Rangers began their PR machine, publishing a piece detailing how DZ was the second-youngest defenseman in franchise history to ever play in a regular-season contest and the youngest ever to play on opening night. Younger than Brian Leetch! Just a little hype. No pressure.

Joining him in his debut was another over-hyped blueliner, Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy. Not only did the Rangers have one young 'star' starting the season, they had two! Leetch and Zubov all over again!!! Yeahhhh, not quite.

The season started and, aside from one sexy preseason goal, Gilroy quickly looked out of place. Had Hobey been a draft pick out of the O and not a collegiate free agent signing, he would have been sent to juniors after nine games. He had just one goal and one assist over that span and showed that, while he was a man among boys at BU, he was a boy among men in the NHL. And now, four and a half years later, he's on his fourth NHL organization and can't even make the floundering Florida Panthers.

DZ, however, had four goals and five assists in his first nine games. That kind of production made headlines and made it all but impossible for the Blueshirt brass to send him back to London. Big mistake. The braintrust should have realized that a full season under Dale Hunter would have been far more helpful in the long run than letting a 19 year old loose in New York City. A young, cocksure, rich ladies man with a taste for bad beer and inappropriate clothing in the center of the universe with temptation everywhere? What could go wrong?

Ah hindsight, you truly are 20/20.

But, at the time, the Ranger front office and many fans were blinded by the flash. Since then, however, it was made perfectly clear that there was little substance. Over the next 315 games (including playoffs), DZ accumulated 124 points. His defensive deficiencies never improved, his skating slowed, his decision making - particularly in his own end - became even more dubious and predictable (... to say the least). His play was marked by poor positioning, poor gap control, a penchant for chasing body contact, ill-advised rushes, ill-advised passes and, simply, illness-inducing idiocy.

And now, blissfully, delightfully, enjoyably, euphorically, FINALLY he is gone.

Could DZ eventually get his act together? Maybe, Barry Trotz is a helluva coach who has developed some stellar defensemen down south. Nashville's bench boss will just have to break a battery of bad habits to remold the kid into someone capable of contributing. He has quite a task ahead.

As for us, we get one of Trotz's many successes, Kevin Klein. Klein will not fill the Zubov void, he is not that kind of player. The search for the next Sergei continues (Brady Skjei?) but Klein can be the new Michael Sauer - a more recent loss to the Blueshirts' blueline that had not been properly filled.

The Predator product is a defensive defenseman who is capable of marking top players, clearing the crease and throwing down the gloves if need be. Sauer was a big missing piece in the 2012 run, so perhaps Klein can help come April. He comes with a cap-friendly contract and adds some insurance should Dan Girardi price himself off Broadway this summer with ridiculous demands. Hopefully this doesn't open the door for G's exit. Hopefully it balances and strengthens a defensive corps that was picked apart by the Islanders the other night. Hopefully it helps Henrik have room to make more saves. Hopefully it makes us forget about the blight on the blueline that was Del Zaster.



On a personal note, I love you guys. In the classic "Fever Pitch" (the book about Arsenal and not the lousy Red Sox flick), Nick Hornby wrote:
"And I love that, the fact that old girlfriends and other people you have lost touch with and will probably never see again are sitting in front of their TV sets and thinking, momentarily but all at the same time, Nick, just that, and are happy or sad for me. Nobody else gets that, only us."
Hornby was speaking about big moments for the Gunners, but I feel the same way with the Rangers. The second the trade news broke yesterday my phone, twitter and Facebook all erupted. Hilarious, wonderful and hugely appreciated. Thanks folks.


The Ghost of E.M.M. said...

It was really nice to read a scottyhockey blog again. I had missed it. Glad to hear about the response you got when the trade happened, means you've been noticed:)

Sammael said...

I was extremely happy when this went down. They had played extremely well in the time immediately following too!

Hope all is well Scotty. Miss the blog.

Unknown said...

Only 4 years later but you missed Ozolinsh on that list of shitty offensive defensemen.

How's your grumpy ass doing Scotty?

Scotty Hockey said...

Still incredibly miserable, thanks to the fact I'll probably never see a Stanley Cup at MSG.