Michael Del Zotto

Michael Del Zotto wants to be the defensive spark plug the Rangers need

Two seasons ago, defenseman Michael Del Zotto surprised Rangers fans by making the team out of training camp. In his rookie season, Del Zotto was able to be an offensive helper on the blue line scoring nine goals and adding 28 assists. With that kind of point production from a then 19 year-old defenseman, the future seemed to be very bright for both Del Zotto and the Rangers.

As will happen on occasion to young players, they run into problems in their sophomore season and Del Zotto fell on hard times for sure. Del Zotto struggled defensively and lost his touch on offense leading to him being sent to AHL Connecticut after 47 games. In that time, Del Zotto had just two goals and nine assists and didn’t show the necessary improvement defensively for coach John Tortorella to keep him in the lineup. While the Rangers got solid play from Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Michael Sauer they lacked that offensive touch from the blue line and acquired Bryan McCabe to help out late in the year and in the playoffs.

Heading into camp this year, McCabe is gone and Del Zotto has lessons learned after spending part of the season in the AHL as well as having his season ended early thanks to a broken finger. As Andrew Gross of Ranger Rants shares, Del Zotto wants to prove he belongs in Manhattan this season and can bring some of that scoring touch back to their blue line.

“I’m pretty self-motivated,” Del Zotto added. “Especially after last year. This is a huge year for me. I’m all business.”

Del Zotto said the aim is to bring back the swagger he had as a rookie while not making the repeated on-ice mistakes he made last season (long, bad passes), not to mention correct some off-ice mistakes (no doubt, stay on the right side of being confident, as coach John Tortorella might put it). “I’m not going to be given ice time because of what I did my rookie year on the power play.”

Del Zotto knowing his place coming into camp will help him more than anything. Knowing that Tortorella already has a bunch of guys he feels comfortable with on the blue line means he knows he’s going to have to prove his worth. Del Zotto has the skills to be a very good offensive defenseman and at 21 years-old he’s plenty young to keep growing into his position and still has plenty to learn.

As it is, the Rangers set up with virtually the same guys they had last season on defense. Staal, Girardi, Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, and Steve Eminger are all back meaning there’s an opening in the top six for someone to grab on to. Del Zotto will be in the hunt as will summer rookie trade acquisition Tim Erixon with fellow youngster Brendan Bell with an outside shot.

The Rangers will be looking to up their offensive output this season with Brad Richards now in town to help spur that on. If Del Zotto can harness that offensive touch he had in his rookie season and pair that up with smarter play and defensive responsibility, he can help the Rangers establish themselves as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.

Antoine Vermette’s 10-game suspension upheld by Gary Bettman

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The NHL announced on Saturday afternoon that commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld the 10-game suspension the league issued to Anaheim Ducks forward Antoine Vermette for an abuse of official incident that happened earlier this month.

Bettman met with Vermette on Thursday and heard his appeal, and has ruled that the 10-game ban will remain in place.

Vermette was ejected from the Ducks’ Feb. 14 game against the Minnesota Wild after he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso in the leg following a face off. The NHL ruled that it was a Category II abuse of official foul, which carries an automatic 10-game suspension. He has already served four of those games. He will lose $97,222.22 in salary as a result of the entire suspension.

Vermette’s suspension is the third abuse of official suspension we have seen in the NHL over the past two years following the 20-game ban Dennis Wideman received last year (later reduced to 10 games) and the three-game suspension given to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season.

After signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Ducks in free agency, Vermette has eight goals and 14 assists in 58 games this season.

Blackhawks’ Hjalmarsson ‘day-to-day,’ will not play on Sunday

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 11:  Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Chicago Blackhawks fires a shot against the Washington Capitals at the United Center on November 11, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Capitals defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Just about the only downside to the Chicago Blackhawks’ latest win, a 6-3 dismantling of the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night, was the injury suffered by defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

He ended up leaving the game after taking just four shifts in the first period and did not return.

Along with missing almost all of that game, he will also be out of the lineup on Sunday when the Blackhawks look to continue their recent hot streak when they host the St. Louis Blues.

In 60 games this season Hjalmarsson has five goals and nine assists while mostly playing alongside Duncan Keith. On Thursday the Blackhawks had seven defensemen in the lineup and relied on Michal Rozsival to fill some of the minutes left vacated by Hjalmarsson. He ended up scoring his first goal of the season in the win.

The Blackhawks have been on a roll over the past few weeks, winning eight of their past nine games and scoring at least four goals in every win during that stretch.

They will miss Hjalmarsson on Sunday, but it seems to only be a short-term issue.

Kris Letang won’t play in outdoor game; Schultz game-time decision

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 17:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins talks before a faceoff during the game against Colorado Avalanche at PPG Paints Arena on October 17, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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An already shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins defense is going to be without another key player on Saturday when Kris Letang misses their Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers due to an upper body.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced the news following the team’s morning skate and would only add that Letang remains day-to-day with an upper body injury.

Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman, played more than 28 minutes in their most recent game, a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

In 41 games this season he has five goals and 29 assists. Ron Hainsey, recently acquired in a trade with the Hurricanes, is going to have to immediately take on a pretty substantial role with his new team.

Anytime the Penguins are without Letang it’s a big deal because of how impactful he is on the blue line, but it is an even bigger issue now given the injury situation they are dealing with. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta are both sidelined for what will most likely be the remainder of the regular season.

Justin Schultz, a game-time decision on Saturday night according to Sullivan, has missed the past three games due to a concussion.

NHL On NBC: Penguins, Flyers meet in Stadium Series

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates up the ice with the puck against Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at Wells Fargo Center on October 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Saturday night with the final outdoor game of the season when cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the NHL Stadium Series.

It’s only the second meeting of the season between the two rivals after the Penguins won aa 5-4 decision earlier this season in Philadelphia.

 

The Penguins come into the game fighting through some recent injury woes that have decimated their defense. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are likely to miss the remainder of the regular season, while Justin Schultz is recovering from a concussion that has sidelined him for the past three games. As if that wasn’t enough, Kris Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman and arguably their most irreplaceable player given the role he has, the minutes he plays and the impact he makes, is day-to-day with an injury of his own. That recent rash of injuries forced the team to make a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week to acquire veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who is expected to make his debut with the team on Saturday at Heinz Field.

The Penguins have also been dealing with injuries to forwards Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Even with all of that the Penguins have managed to remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division and are 6-1-3 in their past 10 games.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are struggling.

With only nine wins in their past 27 games they have lost a hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and enter Saturday five points back of a wild card spot. A loss on Sunday could even lead to them starting to sell off assets in advance of the NHL trade deadline this week. They have one more game (Tuesday at home against the Colorado Avalanche) between now and the trade deadline.

So it could pretty big game for them on Saturday night.

Faceoff is 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on NBC or our live stream.