Del Zotto in make-or-break season

VOORHEES, N.J. -- It seems almost preposterous to suggest that a young man just nicely past his 24th birthday is somehow facing a pivotal point in his career.

Nay, a make-or-break point of a career.

And looking at Michael Del Zotto, ripped from a summer of hard workouts with his pal Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars and highly regarded Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol, it adds to the puzzling element of the Del Zotto story.

Last chance? Redemption? Really? At this stage. But it's true. All of it.

A cautionary tale? Perhaps.

Certainly, Del Zotto's fall from grace and his subsequent rededication to prove doubters wrong is more than a little shocking. Drafted 20th in 2008, a 19-year-old Del Zotto became the youngest ever New York Rangers starting defenseman on opening night. Through his first season, he collected 37 points, second among rookie defenders, and was named to the 2009-10 all-rookie team.

His point total dropped in his sophomore year, though, and he was demoted for a time to the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate, but he bounced back with 41 points in his third season.

But lack of consistency and defensive struggles did not endear him to coach John Tortorella, and his stock dropped as his confidence waned.

Even under a new coach in Alain Vigneault, Del Zotto could not rediscover his way with the Rangers and was traded to the Nashville Predators, where he also struggled, ending up a healthy scratch toward the end of the season.

Without a contract, Del Zotto had to wait until late in the summer before finding a team willing to give him a chance, and even then the Philadelphia Flyers offered him only a one-year deal.

Del Zotto admitted it was discouraging. Flyers GM Ron Hextall suggested that Del Zotto was "humbled" this summer.

Now, it's a question of what rises out of that humbling experience, those moments of discouragement.

"It was a big summer for me," Del Zotto told ESPN.com in an interview after a recent vigorous workout.

From the Toronto area, Del Zotto lived downtown in the offseason with Seguin and worked out diligently in an effort to get stronger not just physically but also mentally. Is he a different person now than a year ago?

"Physically, yes; mentally, I think even more so," Del Zotto said. "I think that's the most important part. This game is such a mental game. It's pretty easy to lose your confidence. It's a confidence game. Every player's a great player; sometimes it's a matter of confidence and keeping that consistency."

He was especially appreciative of Seguin's counsel, especially given that Seguin's maturity had been questioned in Boston before the Bruins' trading of the star forward to Dallas in the summer of 2013, which was followed by a breakout season for Seguin, who finished fourth in NHL scoring.

"I think living with him and having him deal with all the nonsense that happened with him being traded from Boston to Dallas and then the phenomenal year he had last year, it was pretty easy to lean on him and have him there for advice," Del Zotto said.

In turn, Seguin had nothing but praise for the work put in by his friend, even if they tried not to talk business too often while Del Zotto waited for the phone to ring with an offer of a new hockey home.

"I think, especially when the free-agent stuff was going on, there was a few weeks there when we didn't say much to each other … we had no hockey talk," Seguin told ESPN.com recently. "He had maybe a tough spurt there where he wasn't playing great hockey."

But in spite of being "thrown under the bus, pushed aside," Del Zotto worked hard to revive his game, Seguin said.

"He got really strong this summer. He's a beast in the gym," said Seguin, who suggested that the Stars take a look at signing his pal. "I'm looking forward to seeing how he does this season."

Who knows how these things happen. Hextall suggested that being a teenage star in the NHL, living in New York, maybe it's easy to take things for granted.

"His skill and ability didn't just leave him. I've said this before, and this isn't a shot at Michael, but you're 19, 20, 21, 22 years old and living in New York, you've got a lot coming at you really fast," Hextall told ESPN.com. "And how many of us would have handled that like a real mature adult? Probably not many, and that includes myself.

"I think he got humbled this summer, which I'm sure, when we ask him in a couple of years, [he'll say] it was one of the best things that could have happened to him. But he had a lot happen to him real quick in his life."

Sometimes it's not what knocks you down that defines you but how you respond to being knocked down. Del Zotto has committed himself to becoming a better all-around defenseman, the kind who has coaches' trust, something that simply hasn't been the case in the past.

And the stakes have changed since Del Zotto signed his one-year deal with the Flyers. Since then, veteran defender Kimmo Timonen has been diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and his career appears to be over. Now the Flyers will be looking to Del Zotto to play an even bigger role.

So far, he has done what the Flyers have asked him to do.

"I think the first thing was he came into camp in really good shape," Hextall said. "We've got high expectations for him."

Coach Craig Berube has liked what he has seen so far, although he is looking for more.

"He plays with energy out there, which I really like," Berube said in an interview. "I think, too much, sometimes. He wants to make it happen every shift."

Berube would like to see more patience in Del Zotto's game.

"Defend first. Defend first, then go from there," Berube said.

Former Flyer Keith Jones, now a national broadcast analyst, happened to be at the Flyers' facility on this day. He thinks there's a chance Del Zotto could have a big impact on the Flyers this season.

"I think that there's the potential for it to work out really well," Jones said. "There's more in the tank there" than what was seen last season.

Berube is the kind of coach who will push Del Zotto to be more than a one-dimensional player, not someone who simply relies on his natural skill, Jones said.

But it's also true that Del Zotto has a lot of ground to make up. The window closed quickly on him, Jones said.

"All of a sudden the wall hits, and he's got to break back through that wall," he said.

No one knows that better than Del Zotto. He is thoughtful and soft-spoken, and it's clear that the criticism has stung him. But he believes the naysayers and the critics are providing him the additional motivation to getting back to a level that so early in his career made him a star.

"There's a lot of people who are pretty quick to get down on you when you don't have a great year," he said, "and a lot of people that are doubting me, and for me that's just extra motivation to come back and get back to where I was a couple of years ago. And prove I can be that player again."

He and the Flyers are banking on this being the perfect storm for that kind of renaissance, even if it does seem wildly incongruous to be talking in such terms of one so young and with so much left in front of him.