Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Del Zotto, Flyers Greatest Number 12

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DEL ZOTTO ROLLERCOASTER SEASON BACK ON UPSWING

The 2014-15 season has been a strange ride for Flyers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, filled with rather extreme lows and highs. Of late, things have been going well both for him and for the team. He carries a six-game point streak, including similarly nifty goals in back-to-back games in which he hit the long-side corner from the bottom of left circle, into February.

Del Zotto finished the month of January with nine points (four goals, five assists) in 14 games. He also averaged 21:35 of ice time per game during the month. Some of it was due to necessity, with the Flyers’ blueline riddled with injuries. However, it was also by merit. Del Zotto has played his best two-way hockey of the season, surpassing even the level he showed in late October to early November.

Picked up off the unrestricted free agent scrap heap after the Nashville Predators declined to offer the player — a former Rangers first-round pick who seemed well on his way to NHL stardom just a couple of years earlier — Del Zotto was not impressive in training camp. A couple of times, Flyers coach Craig Berube expressed displeasure for the player going off system and not competing hard enough away from the puck.

In the second game of the regular season, Del Zotto and Luke Schenn had a rough night in the plus-minus department. They had not played as badly as Del Zotto’s minus-four and Schenn’s minus-five led so some to say but it was still a night where every time one of the partner’s zigged the puck (and the Devils) zagged.

Not too long after that, however, Del Zotto reeled off a stretch of very solid games.

His confidence and ice time soared, even as he dealt with an embarrassing off-ice distraction. Del Zotto was named third star of the game after an excellent game against Edmonton on Nov. 4 (one assist, six credited hits, three blocks, zero charged giveaways, one credited takeaway in 23:17 of ice time) and followed it up two nights by being named second star of the night against the Florida Panthers. In that game, Del Zotto scored his first goal as a Flyer while racking up 23:18 worth of ice time.

By this point, Del Zotto started to earn headlines for the right reasons. He was spotlighted for his strong play, with many opining — and Berube not disagreeing — that he had been the Flyers’ best all-around defenseman for the majority of the early season.

At the Flyers’ practice the day before the Flyers traveled to Madison Square Garden for a Nov. 19 game, Berube said that he realized Del Zotto was playing against his former team for the first time since the New York Rangers traded him to Nashville last season. Berube said that all he wanted from Del Zotto was to play a smart and disciplined game without losing aggressiveness, but realized that can be easier said than done under the circumstances.

As it turned out, the game at MSG was the start of another downward slide for Del Zotto. He left the game early with a lower-body injury and did not return. Del Zotto also did not play particularly well or intelligently in the Flyers’ 2-0 loss.

Del Zotto was listed as questionable for the Flyers’ next game — a 4-2 home win over Columbus — but played in the game. Thereafter, his performance and ice time dipped as the team as a whole played some of its worst hockey of the season.

In December, Del Zotto found himself a frequent healthy scratch. He sat out the first two games of the Flyers’ California road trip, skated just 15:10 in the team’s 2-1 win in Los Angeles and then had a rough game in Columbus. After that game, Del Zotto was a healthy scratch in each of the next nine games.

Publicly, Berube said that Del Zotto’s lengthy absence was not based on his play but rather on a rotation he preferred once Braydon Coburn returned to lineup following a month-long absence due to a foot injury on opening night. Del Zotto resurfaced in the Flyers’ New Year’s Eve 4-3 overtime loss in Colorado, playing just 11:36.

Del Zotto dressed in every game in January and his play soared as the month proceeded. The Flyers’ defense sustained multiple injuries during the month, but Del Zotto’s play would likely have kept him in the lineup with significant ice time anyway.

It is anybody’s guess what will happen with Del Zotto over the remainder of the season and into the off-season. He is a restricted free agent this summer, when his one-year, $1.3 million contract expires. The Flyers hold all the leverage this year. With the price-tag for a qualifying offer so low, it is a virtual lock that the Flyers will tender him an offer to hold onto his rights.

Beyond that, things get tricky: determining how much he’ll get and for how long could make for a thorny negotiation. Right now, the most likely end game seems to be another one-year deal after which time all the leverage switches to the Del Zotto camp. However, this is still months away and a lot can — and very well may — happen to dictate that path between now and July.

For now, Del Zotto’s entire focus needs to be on carrying his excellent month of January over into the next month and then the stretch drive. If he does that, things will take care of themselves. He can’t worry about who is and isn’t in the lineup for the team.

Coburn was projected to miss approximately four weeks from the time he sustained a left foot injury on Jan. 12. He is still seemingly a few weeks away from returning. Nicklas Grossmann has been out with a right shoulder injury since Jan. 8 and is likely to return to the lineup for Thursday’s game against the Islanders.

When Grossmann returns, it is likely that Carlo Colaiacovo — who hasn’t been disastrous but also hasn’t made nearly a strong enough case this month to push for keeping a starting six lineup spot — will go back to the scratch list. Luke Schenn, as with Del Zotto, has been playing his best hockey of the season of late.

Nick Schultz is taking periodic maintenance days off from practice but is playing in games and has maintained a strong level of play. He missed the final game before the All-Star break with an upper-body injury suffered in the Flyers’ 7-4 loss on Long Island on Jan. 19.

There is also the Kimmo Timonen saga, with the Flyers poised to make a final decision on whether their longtime blueline leader will attempt to play hockey again this season. It will take practice time — Timonen has not yet been able to skate because he’s on blood-thinning medications — before he could potentially be game ready.

For Del Zotto, none of these ancillary issues can be a concern. He has to stay focused on the things that are within his own control.

******* WHO WAS THE FLYERS’ BEST NUMBER 12?

It is easy to tell which era(s) of Flyers history a Flyers fan most identifies with by whom they associate with certain uniform numbers: for example, both Reggie Leach and Ron Hextall sported number 27 during their respective Flyers careers while Rod Brind’Amour and current Flyer Wayne Simmonds wore 17 with distinction during their time in Philadelphia.

Perhaps the ultimate debate, though, is which Flyer is most associated with the number 12. Was it original Flyer and two-time Stanley Cup winner Gary Dorhoefer? Was it 1980s goal-scoring machine Tim Kerr? Or was it speedy, two-way winger Simon Gagne in his decade as a Flyers from 1999-2010 to the end of his first stint with the team in 2009-10?

Today, Feb. 2, 2015, is Dornhoefer’s 72nd birthday. Over on the Flyers Alumni official website, I take a look at Dorny’s legacy as a player.

For those who only knew him from his subsequent days as a television color analyst — with a signature “stop it right there!” command to the broadcast producers as he broke down video highlights piece-by-piece — Dornhoefer was a power forward (although the term didn’t exist back then) who was somewhat comparable to latter day Flyers such as Mike Knuble or Simmonds. He did a lot of the corner work for his line as well as crashing the net for screens, rebounds and deflections.

By sheer coincidence, there is also an article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer about Kerr and son Garret, who is a student-athlete at the University of the Sciences. Back on Kerr’s birthday, Jan. 5, I took an in-depth look at his Flyers career on the Flyers Alumni site.

Both Dornhoefer and Kerr are members of the Flyers Hall of Fame. Someday, they may very well be joined by Gagne. Simon and the rest of his family have been having a tough time recently, following the passing of family patriarch and former Quebec Aces player, Pierre Gagne. He has left the Boston Bruins and his NHL career may not resume.

Regardless of whether Gagne plays hockey again or not, his Flyers legacy is secure. Recently, I had the honor privilege of transcribing Jay Greenberg’s three-plus hour with Simon from late in the summer of 2014, covering pretty much every aspect of Simon’s life, career with the Flyers and other subjects of interest.

As always, Gagne was classy but honest and candid. He revealed a lot of great information that will appear in Jay’s upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Flyers history set (a reissue of the original Full Spectrum, covering 1967 to 1995-96, and a second volume covering the years since then). I learned a lot of things I had not previously known, but one thing I always did know was that Simon Gagne is a tremendous human being in addition to an outstanding player.

Gagne was born on a leap day — Feb. 29, 1980 — and grew up otherwise celebrating his birthday on Feb. 28 rather than March 1 in order to keep it within the same month. As such, on Feb. 28, I will take a look at Gagne’s career for the Flyers’ Alumni site. poll by twiigs.com

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