Michael Del Zotto's recent point streak has garnered the young defenseman a ton of praise from the Philadelphia media. This week alone, half a dozen articles have popped up extolling MDZ's improved two way play.
Michael Del Zotto has gone from odd man out to being one of the Flyers' most useful defensemen
Over the past month or so, the 24-year-old Del Zotto has quietly become the most reliable Flyers defensemen on the blue line for game-in, game-out consistency and he’s doing it amid a career-high six-game point streak.
Del Zotto has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time in each of his last 10 games and has a career-high six-game point streak to show for his recent efforts, including goals in each of his last two games where he picked the top right corner on the opposing goalie.
Del Zotto has played his best two-way hockey of the season, surpassing even the level he showed in late October to early November.
At first glance, it's easy to agree with the sudden consensus on Del Zotto's play. He has been on an offensive tear, tallying four goals and five assists in 14 games. Without a doubt, the production points towards a successful month for the previously perpetually scratched defenseman.
But that success isn't reflected in the underlying numbers. In fact, Del Zotto has been among the Flyer's poorest performers in the month of January when it comes to winning the shot and scoring chance battle. Only Nick Grossmann and Nick Schultz have been worse.
Those poor results have largely been driven by a propensity to give up scoring chances in the defensive zone. In the last 14 games, Del Zotto has conceded chances against at the second highest rate on the team.
To be fair, 14 games is a relatively small sample of games. Maybe the divergence between his tremendous offensive success and his mundane fancystats is a fluke? Let's expand the scope of our analysis and see if it's out of whack with the rest of Del Zotto's season.
In nearly 700 minutes of ice time Del Zotto is only ahead of Nick Grossmann in both overall chance differential and chances against per 20. His lackluster on-ice stats in January are merely the continuation of a season of under-performing relative to the team.
This is far from a new problem for MDZ. He rightfully earned his reputation as a risk-taker and defensive liability for the New York Rangers, where he was regularly one of the worst defenseman in shot attempts against season after season.
His defensive shortcomings have always been counterbalanced by a unique ability to create offense from the blue line, and that hasn't changed in Philadelphia. Del Zotto's recent uptick in offensive production and ice time has led some to claim his two-way game has been rekindled. The reality is they've been fooled by a surge in his shooting percentages both at the individual and on-ice level.
As we know from Eric T.'s work, shooting percentages are prone to wild fluctuations over the course of a season. Call it a run of good luck, some offensive confidence, or a bit of both. Either way, streaks like this tend to be unsustainable.
Watch the game, nerd
Spurred by these numbers, I pulled game film for every single scoring chance against with Del Zotto on the ice in the month of January and looked for trends. There isn't one glaring flaw in Del Zotto's game that stands out, but a number of execution errors at both ends of the ice.
Here is a textbook example of Del Zotto's trademark aggressiveness coming back to bite him. The Flyers are cycling the puck in deep when MDZ activates from the blue line to try to create chance. The Islanders are in position to easily break up the play and an odd-man rush goes the other way with Del Zotto caught deep in the zone.
Del Zotto starts off doing everything right, forcing Fehr to the outside and making him settle for a low percentage shot. But then inexplicably he takes himself out the play and loses inside position. Fehr has a lane to the net and crashes for a rebound.
Another example of losing body position on his check, Del Zotto tries to play the puck instead of the man. Bonino works himself into a clear shooting lane and beats Emery with a wicked shot.
In this last instance, Del Zotto drifts out of his lane and goes to the same check as his partner. With both defenders committed to Bailey, Tavares is able to scoop up the drop pass and swoop into the slot. After sliding so far over, Del can't cover enough ice in time to stop a wide open look at the net.
When you stop and look at the tape, mental lapses like these are all too common in Del Zotto's game and it costs the Flyers on the defensive side of the puck.
Everybody pump the brakes a bit
None of this is to say that Del Zotto is a bad defenseman. He has proven to be a capable third pairing guy. When injuries inevitably strike, he can step higher into the lineup. And while he absolutely takes risks, there is a certain amount of upside to that style of play. Ron Hextall would be foolish not to at least tender him a qualifying offer at the end of the season.
The goal of this piece isn't to trash Del Zotto, but to point out that a media narrative is being constructed around a tale of dramatic redemption and evolution in his two-way play. Truthfully, Del Zotto is the same defenseman he has been for the majority of the season. A fortunate upswing in his on-ice percentages and a noticeable point streak is fueling evaluations of Del Zotto's game that overstep. Offensive success is masking some ever present defensive warts.
His up and down season is a perfect example of transient streaks influencing our perceptions of a player. Ironically, it was dip in those same on ice percentages that led him to be healthy scratch in the first place.