On Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets signed veteran defenseman Michael Del Zotto to a one-year, two-way contract.
With the signing, the Blue Jackets replace a piece of the defensive depth that left this past offseason when Ryan Murray left to join the New Jersey Devils and Markus Nutivaara went south to reunite with Sergei Bobrovsky and Alexander Wennberg with the Florida Panthers.
"I'm pretty familiar with the team and their recent success. I like their chances to win. As you get older and older within your career, you want to win. - Michael Del Zotto#CBJ | @OhioHealth pic.twitter.com/r0ryAiWCOP— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 5, 2021
Del Zotto, 30, has experience playing for John Tortorella early on in his career. As a 19-year old rookie with the New York Rangers, Del Zotto was fifth on the team (and first among defensemen) with 37 points (Marion Gaborik, Vinny Prospal, and Brandon Dubinsky finished 1-3) in 80 games. The left-handed shot defenseman and Tortorella had their ups and downs, but both coach and player are saying the right things about a reunion. Del Zotto could have signed a PTO elsewhere, and Tortorella is "thrilled" to have the opportunity to work with the offensive-minded defenseman again.
Even without Murray and Nutivaara, the Blue Jackets boast one of the NHL's top blue lines. Led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and followed up by David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov, the Blue Jackets have roughly 45 minutes of a 60-minute hockey game already written in pen. The Blue Jackets have plenty of options for the third pairing, which could include some combination of Andrew Peeke, Dean Kukan, Del Zotto, Scott Harrington, Adam Clendening, and Gabriel Carlsson.
In a vacuum, I would be reluctant to endorse the signing of Del Zotto, who isn't known for his play in the defensive zone. While his puck-moving skills are sound and he can provide a spark to an offense, his defensive deficiencies are well documented, and his analytics leave room to be desired. On the other hand, this is a team that lacks scoring punch, and Del Zotto's presence would change the dynamic of the lineup in a meaningful way.
The Athletic's Aaron Portzline touched on this during his interview with John Tortorella:
"I think the coaches, we have to coach a little bit differently this year. We know how to play. We know what the foundation of our team is. I think we have to allow them to make a few more offensive plays than we did last season."
Del Zotto likes to be active in the offensive zone, pinching down instead of retreating. This makes sense given his skill set and his offensive instincts. In the below clip, we can see the best-case-scenario of this aggressiveness.
The flip side of this coin is that Del Zotto is susceptible to getting caught up ice, where odd-man rushes and quick counter plays can harm his team. Over the past few years, Tortorella has entrusted all of his defensemen to be aggressive in the offensive zone, trusting that his responsible forwards will be able to cover for any liabilities. With this signing, the hope is that the risk is worth the reward.
The Blue Jackets like to play Werenski and Jones on the same power-play unit, which leaves a void on the second unit. Del Zotto is a natural fit for this role. With an effective shot and solid puck-moving skills, his assets are best served while on a man-advantage. From this standpoint, the move makes total sense.
Del Zotto would need to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL or join the Blue Jackets 'taxi-squad', which indicates that he's more than likely to make this team in a full-time capacity. That pushes someone like Harrington further down the depth chart, and I can't help but wonder where that leaves Kukan and Peeke. Kukan, like Del Zotto, is a left-handed, puck-moving defenseman. Playing the two together could pose struggles, both from a handedness and defensive soundness standpoint. Peeke, 22, is yet to be a full-time NHLer. Playing him alongside a loose cannon (sorry about the pun) like Del Zotto could put him in a tougher spot developmentally. Peeke is a right-shot and projects as a responsible defenseman, so perhaps the trial by fire approach makes sense, too.
Del Zotto gives the Blue Jackets an added element in the offensive zone. For a team that has struggled to score goals - the team was 27th in the NHL in scoring a year ago - the addition makes sense. On the other hand, the 30-year old is a known quantity at this point in his career, and that's not necessarily a compliment. The Blue Jackets will hope that the assets (offense) exceed the liabilities (defense) in 2021.