CORAL SPRINGS — It has been a long, strange year for Michael Del Zotto. One that has ended up with the Florida Panthers.
Last year at this time, he was in training camp with the Ottawa Senators after signing a two-year contract worth $4 million.
As one of the biggest offseason acquisitions by the Senators following a strong 2021 with the Blue Jackets, Del Zotto was expecting big minutes with a club that was young and rebuilding.
Only Del Zotto was scratched by the Sens in their opener and by December had only played in a handful of games.
The Senators placed him on waivers and then assigned him to their AHL team.
He ended up scoring three goals with 13 points in 26 games for Ottawa and then saw the team buyout the final year of his contract.
The Panthers were one of the first teams to call when free agency opened.
“Honestly, I still don’t know what happened,’’ Del Zotto said. “I had five or six offers in free agency and Ottawa seemed like the best opportunity for me as far as getting good playing time went. I was promised A-B-C and showed up and didn’t play on Day 1.
“If you look at my numbers, I still had a great year the time I was there; in Belleville, my numbers sort of speak for themselves. So it was disappointing. But if you ask anyone who knows me, or was there with me, I take pride in my work ethic and whatever else happens is out of my control. I have the same mindset here.
“I am coming in every day with a smile on my face and ready to work hard. Hopefully I will make the most of this opportunity and not look back.”
Del Zotto said playing in the AHL did free him up to play his style of game and he ended up as almost a point-per-game player for Belleville with 26 in 27 games played there.
It was Del Zotto’s first AHL assignment since 2010-11 while with the Rangers.
He came to the Panthers on a two-way deal at age 32, looking to grab the one spot on the Florida blueline that is available.
Of late, he and Matt Kiersted — the player he is battling with — have been paired together on Florida’s fourth defensive pairing.
Barring injury or trade, it appears both are vying for the team’s No. 7 slot.
”I am very much excited for this opportunity and I think that is why this chance excited me the most,’’ Del Zotto said. “There was a spot available here and this is a team that is trying to win. When you look at their offensive talent and the style they play, it kind of suits my style of game.
“The last couple of years, unfortunately, I have been on some losing teams. I guess the direction was different. Other teams were trying to develop players for the NHL and this team is trying to win. That’s what you want. It has been a tough camp.’’
For a player who has not been to the postseason since 2013, Del Zotto not only hopes to make the Panthers but help them moving forward.
With 736 NHL games played, he has plenty of experience.
And, after last year in Ottawa, he has something to prove.
“I was here for a couple of weeks before we started camp,” Del Zotto said. “The high-end talent, especially up front and the way guys make plays with pace is fun to watch. For a guy like me who takes pride in being the fourth man and being up in the rush, I like that opportunity.”
This offseason, Florida took on a number of players who had contracts bought out including Colin White from Ottawa and Rudolfs Balcers from San Jose.
The Panthers are looking to give these players a fresh start in the sun and hope for the best.
“When you look at the success this franchise has had the past couple of years, a lot of it was built on players who came in off those kind of circumstances and found their game,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We are very excited about where they are at.”
As for that proverbial chip on the shoulder, Del Zotto says he brings that with him “every year.”
”If you go through my career, it has been a crazy roller-coaster ride,” he said. “Being on some developing, rebuilding teams as an older guy, you kind of get the short end of the stick. They are quick to write you off in this league especially once you hit your 30s. I want to prove a lot of people wrong.
“Last year was an unfortunate series of events, a lot of which was out of my control. It is was it is. I am going to make the most of this opportunity.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS PRESEASON
Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers
Where, When: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise; Tonight, 7 p.m.
Tickets: CLICK HERE
2022 Preseason — Sept. 26: Florida 4, @Nashville 3 (OT); @Nashville 4, Florida 0. Sept. 29: Carolina 5, @Florida 2. Oct. 1: @Carolina 4, Florida 3. Tonight: vs. Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. Saturday: at Tampa Bay, 4 p.m
Regular Season Opener: Oct. 13 at New York Islanders