By Bruce Berlet

CROMWELL, Conn. – Less than seven months after being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team, defenseman Michael Del Zotto has begun a hockey refresher course with the Connecticut Whale.

CT WhaleDel Zotto was sent to the minors for the first time on Monday to try to rediscover the skills and confidence that made the 20-year-old the 20th overall pick in first round of the 2008 NHL draft by the New York Rangers and rookie of the month in his first month in the NHL.

So the Rangers have put one of their youngest and most talented prospects in the hands of Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistant J.J. Daigneault, who works with the defense and has helped shape current Rangers blueliners Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer and Michael Gilroy, who profited from a 10-day stint in Hartford last season.

Del Zotto began his attempted climb back to the Mount Everest of pro hockey on Tuesday with his new Whale teammates, skating alongside Stu Bickel, who also wasn’t with the team at the start of the season, having been acquired from the Anaheim Ducks and Syracuse Crunch for disgruntled defenseman Nigel Williams on Nov. 23. Ironically, Bickel wears No. 4, which Del Zotto wore for years in homage to Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, who also played his junior hockey with Oshawa of the OHL and had his number retired while Del Zotto was with the Generals. With No. 4 taken, Del Zotto went to No. 2, the number that Orr wore in juniors and was worn by Rangers legend/Hall of Famer/Cheshire native Brian Leetch and retired to the rafters of Madison Square Garden on Jan. 24, 2008.

“The biggest thing for me is to get some games under me, play some minutes and try to get my game back to where it used to be,” the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Del Zotto said after a 90-minute practice and workout in preparation for his Whale debut Wednesday night in Worcester, Mass. “I think confidence is the biggest thing. Things haven’t gone as smoothly or come as easily as they maybe came last year, especially offensively, so I just want to get my confidence back.

“When I’m playing with confidence, I know I belong. It’s a lot easier said than done in most cases, but it’s a matter of making plays, simplifying my game and letting the game come to me. When that happens, the rest falls into place.”

Del Zotto sat out four games the past two weeks and had two goals and seven assists and was minus-1 in 35 games this season, after leading Rangers defensemen in scoring (nine goals, 28 assists) in 80 games in his rookie campaign.

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“We can’t have Michael sitting, not playing games, because we still feel he’s a really big piece of the puzzle,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said in a conference call with the Rangers media on Monday. “I think Michael understands this is part of the process. But we want to see improvement in his mindset and his play on the ice.”

The Rangers have to hope Del Zotto’s AHL stint is as successful as that of Gilroy, who had four assists in five games with the then Hartford Wolf Pack last December . They need Del Zotto to have a positive attitude like that shown by the New York Islanders’ 21-year-old forward Josh Bailey, a first-round pick (ninth overall) in 2008, after he was assigned to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Nov. 24. Bailey started this season strong but was injured and went scoreless for 13 games before being sent to the Sound Tigers after playing in 159 NHL games, one before he would have had to clear waivers to be reassigned. Bailey had six goals and 11 assists in 11 games with the Sound Tigers before returning to the Islanders on Dec. 22.

Del Zotto offered a definitive answer on what kind of attitude accompanied him from New York to Hartford.

“When I return (to New York) is not my decision,” Del Zotto said. “I’ve come here wanting to make the most of this opportunity, and I’m just trying to help out what I’ve already seen is a great group of guys and try to get my game back. I want to do everything I can to help the team win any way I can. That’s what they’re looking for, for me not taking a step back down here and be upset at the world. I just have to move forward and be my usual self, always having a good time, smiling and enjoying life.

“It’s amazing how it works when you’re making a few of those simple, 10-15-foot passes rather than the home-run passes,” Del Zotto said, after being encouraged by Tortorella to do just that. “It opens things up when you’re not forcing it and not always looking for that. You’re not going to be able to make the perfect play or perfect pass every single shift. You have to take what the game presents and just move on from there.

“So basically it’s just simplifying, and taking what the game offers. Last year it came pretty easy for me for whatever reason, but this year has been a bit tougher. Last year I just came in with a swagger and confidence that I belonged and just kind of ran with it. I didn’t know what to expect. I was 19 years old, and you just come in so enthused with a smile on your face learning new things every day. I’m still young and just trying to get better and better every day.

“This is part of the day-to-day process. They sent me down here, and I’m just trying to build my confidence up, get my game where it needs to be and move on. I’m taking it one day at a time because that’s all you can do.”

Tortorella said the Rangers’ immediate concern is development and winning games.

“The way Gilly (Gilroy) has played, he’s gotten better, both in the offensive end and he’s improved defensively,” Tortorella said. “Right now we feel this six (Gilroy, Staal, Girardi, Sauer, Michal Rozsival and Steve Eminger) gives us the best chance to win.”

Tortorella said there is no timetable for Del Zotto’s stay with the Whale.

“We want to see the improvement in him, and that will give him the opportunity to get back (to New York),” Tortorella said. “It’s him understanding how to think the game, to think preparation, and also bring that to within his game as far as the minutes he gets (in Hartford).”

Gernander, who talked to Tortorella on Monday, said the major objective with Del Zotto is to get him “lots of big, quality minutes” in all situations, including as quarterback on the power play.

“He’ll be playing a large chunk of the game so he can get that game conditioning and timing to help him recapture his ‘A’ game,” Gernander said. “There are a couple of little things that they’d like to see him work on while he’s here. J.J. is good at working with guys, and if he sees areas that he can help or work on, then he’ll take care of it, just like any other player.”

Daigneault also stressed the need for Del Zotto to get plenty of ice time.

“Nothing replaces being out there and making some plays in every situation,” Daigneault said. “Obviously he’s a power-play guy who ran it for the Rangers at a young age, and though we didn’t run it (Tuesday), he’s smart enough to know what the structure is and perform well within the structure. The power play is basically good offensive instincts and getting good opportunities off them.

“There’s a lot of teaching that has to be done, but I don’t want to tweak his game or work on things until I see him play one or two games. But the one thing that I expressed to him is he can’t come down and think he’s a NHL player (who can coast) because the AHL is a very tough league. I was in (his) situation before, playing four years in the NHL before being sent down for one full season. I think he’s the best guy to have around as far as learning from my experience, and he needs to respond well.

“He obviously has the talent and skills to play at the other (NHL) level, but he needs to play. At the same time, he needs to perform well at this (AHL) level and has to understand what he needs to do to get back to the top level because he’s going to find out for himself if I don’t tell him.”

The decision to send Del Zotto to the Whale came after a conference call among Tortorella, Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather and assistant GM-assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld.

“Sometimes players might not agree with (a demotion), but it’s not up to the player,” Tortorella said. “In my conference call with Glen and Jim, we talked about what’s best for Michael and what’s best for the team. It’s going to be good for him as a player and good for us as an organization.”

On the other side of the equation is Ryan McDonagh, who was recalled at the same time Del Zotto was assigned to the Whale.

The 21-year-old McDonagh, more of a stay-at-home defenseman than Del Zotto, was reunited with former University of Wisconsin teammate/center Derek Stepan, who turned pro in June after leaving the Badgers after his sophomore year. Stepan and McDonagh, the Canadiens’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2007 who left Wisconsin after his junior year, led the Badgers to the NCAA championship game in April, when they lost 5-0 to Boston College and top Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, who helped defending champion Team USA reach the World Junior Championships semifinals before losing 4-1 to Canada on Monday night in Buffalo, N.Y.

After signing with the Rangers on July 6, McDonagh got off to a so-so start this season after a lot of talk in training camp that he might make the Rangers. But his game picked up considerably in the past month playing mostly with fellow rookie Tomas Kundratek and Bickel. McDonagh had one goal and seven assists and was plus-1 in all 38 Whale games.

But McDonagh won’t be in the lineup Wednesday night when the Rangers host the Carolina Hurricanes as Gilroy returns after being scratched Sunday night. While the Whale leaves after Wednesday night’s game for Voorhees, NJ, a pit stop for a Thursday practice on the way to Norfolk, Va., for games Friday and Saturday, the Rangers will be at Dallas and St. Louis those same nights. The Rangers return to play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at MSG while the Whale is off until traveling to Portland for a game Jan. 14, when they will unveil their new blue road jerseys.

“As an NHL coach, I’d like to see where (McDonagh) is at practice,” Tortorella said. “He has grown as a player, and he’s one we are very interested in. But Ryan’s coming up does not guarantee him playing in a game. We’re going to have him practice with us. He has improved, from having spoken with the coaches in Connecticut, and we want to take a look at him. But Gilly is going back into the lineup, and Gilly is one of our top six (defensemen) right now.

“I’m not looking for (McDonagh) to force himself into the lineup. It’s hard for me to tell you what’s going to happen because we don’t know. Right now, it’s one (AHL) game he’s going to miss (Wednesday night), and we’ll see what happens.”

Gernander said the seven Whale defensemen have played well lately, but McDonagh got the nod because of his improvement the last two months.

“The Rangers are in the business of winning games, so whoever can help them is who’s going to be recalled,” Gernander said. “Ryan is a good skater with some size (6-foot-1, 222 pounds) who can finish physically, and his offensive game has really improved in the last little while, so he was playing very well. I think he was a good choice.”

While with the Whale, McDonagh has often communicated with Stepan, whose stall is across the Rangers’ locker room from his former teammate. McDonagh praised Wade Redden for being one of the biggest helps to his development this season. He has been a frequent defensive partner, and they are roommates on the road.

“He’s a great guy, a great player for that team down there,” McDonagh told the New York media on Tuesday. “He’s toward the end of his career and to go through what he did, he could have a different attitude. But he has an incredible attitude, staying out late on the ice. I ask him a lot of questions. He’s probably sick of me. He’s helped me a lot. A lot of mental things, too.”


Right wing Jonathan Cheechoo, a 56-goal scorer for the San Jose Sharks in 2005-06, is the most dangerous threat for Worcester (17-12-2-4) with team highs in goals (13), assists (22) and points (35) in 33 games. Defenseman Sean Sullivan is second in scoring (10 goals, 11 assists), and wings T.J. Trevelyan (6, 11) and James Marcou (4, 13) are tied for third. Alex Stalock (15-13-2, 2.69 goals-against average, .908 save percentage) was on the all-rookie team and an AHL All-Star last season, when he was named Sharks MVP after his 39 victories (39-19-2) were the most ever for an AHL rookie, surpassing Corey Hirsch’s record in 1992-93, when he was 35-4-5 with the Binghamton Rangers. Stalock leads AHL goalies in wins and minutes played (1,737) this season.

The Whale won the last two meetings with the Sharks at home, 4-3 in a shootout Dec. 4 and 3-2 in overtime Dec. 17, after a regulation loss and shootout loss in the first matchups of the season. The 2-1 shootout loss Dec. 1 came in the Whale’s only previous visit to the DCU Center.

After the four-game trip, the Whale returns to the XL Center on Jan. 15 to face Providence, the start of a three-game homestand that also includes visits from league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Jan. 16) and Hamilton (Jan. 21). … Kreider and two other top Rangers prospects will be vying for the bronze medal in the World Junior Championships Wednesday, starting at 3:30 p.m. Kreider and Ryan Bourque, the youngest son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, play for Team USA, which lost 4-1 Monday to Canada, which lost to the U.S. in the finals in overtime last year. Team USA will face Jesper Fasth and Team Sweden, which was upset 4-3 by Russia in a shootout in the semifinals. Canada and Russia will play for the gold medal at 7:30 p.m. The Rangers selected Kreider in the first round, Bourque in the third round and Fasth in the sixth round in 2008.


Recent Whale call-up, wing Mats Zuccarello, continued to earn kudos from Tortorella after the “Norwegian Hobbit,” Stepan and Dubinsky generated the Rangers’ best scoring chances in a 3-0 loss at Florida Sunday. The 5-foot-7 Zuccarello had what many considered his best game with the Rangers, jumping into holes, creating chances for himself by going to the net, skating with confidence with the puck and being unlucky to be denied his first NHL goal for the second consecutive game.

“I liked him,” Tortorella said of Zuccarello, who had four shots in 18:30. “That was our best line. And I thought Gabby was much better, too. He created some offense.”

“The best thing about (Zuccarello) is he’s just a sponge,” Dubinsky said. “He’s willing to soak in and he’s always wondering what he should’ve done. Sometimes I have to tell him to just relax and play his game rather than worry about what I think or what Steps thinks. But I think that just shows that he wants to get better and that he wants to be a big part and be something special for this team. He’s going to be.”


Monarchs goalie Martin Jones didn’t surprise his coach, Mark Morris, with a 39-save shutout performance on Sunday.

“He’s big, calm, strong and sure headed, a very good combination,” Morris said of the 6-foot-4, 191-pound second-year pro who is now 3-0-0 against the Whale. “He has won everybody over and is a big reason for the success we have had the last little bit. He waited his turn and his numbers just keep getting better and better, and we’re trying to reward him with more games. We score more when he is in there. He came up with timely saves all game.”

Jones has won six in a row to improve to 13-2-0-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average, tied for first in the AHL, and .948 save percentage, second to the .950 of Peoria’s Jake Allen. Jones didn’t play in the Monarchs’ only loss in their recent run, 3-1 to the Springfield Falcons Saturday night.

“We ran into a buzz-saw in Springfield and that really set us up for (Sunday),” Morris said. “(The Falcons) were very unbelievably energetic and physical. We handled it well, but it was eye opener for some of our younger players.”

Morris was not only happy to see the Whale fall to 1-4-1-0 against his team, but he liked that their newest player, center Todd White, was getting significant ice time again. White was captain at Clarkson University when Morris was the coach but got limited playing time with the Rangers before being waived for the fourth time this season and sent to the Whale on Wednesday. White had a goal in each of his first two Whale games, but like everyone else in the new white jerseys, he couldn’t beat Jones despite five shots, some of high quality.

“Great to see (White) still playing,” Morris said. “I know he would rather be in the NHL, but he is a good person and a helluva good player. He is a good addition for any organization. You’re going to enjoy him.”

Morris also was aware of the increased support of the local AHL entry since they were rebranded from the Wolf Pack to the Whale on Nov. 27. The Whale had been 11-1-0-3 since the rebranding before Sunday, when their 11-game unbeaten streak (9-0-0-2) against division teams ended.

“We were commenting since they had gone from the red, white and blue to blue and green there seems to be a groundswell and enthusiasm (with the Whale),” Morris said.


Hamilton Bulldogs center David Desharnais, Manchester Monarchs goalie Martin Jones and Manitoba Moose goalie Eddie Lack were named Reebok/AHL Player, Rookie and Goaltender of the Month for November.

Desharnais had three goals and 17 assists in 14 games in leading the Bulldogs into the North Division lead. He got at least a point in 12 of 14 games to take over the AHL lead in scoring (10 assists, 35 assists in 35 games) when recalled by the parent Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 31.

The Whale nominated center Kris Newbury, who had three goals and 13 assists in 12 games, going pointless in only two games. Other nominees included Cheechoo, Bridgeport Sound Tigers center Jeremy Colliton, former Rangers and Wolf Pack wing Petr Prucha (San Antonio), former Wolf Pack forwards Corey Locke (Binghamton), Patrick Rissmiller (Lake Erie) and Jeff Taffe (Rockford) and former Wolf Pack defenseman Corey Potter (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton).

Jones was 7-1-0 with a 1.99 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in nine appearances to help the Monarchs maintain first place in the Atlantic Division. Jones, who turns 21 on Friday, started 2011 with two wins, including a 39-save performance in a 3-0 victory over the Whale on Sunday. He is now 13-2-0 and second in the AHL in GAA (1.60) and save percentage (.948).

The Whale nominated Zuccarello, who had four goals and five assists in nine games before being called up for the first time by the Rangers. Other nominees included Sound Tigers right wing Rhett Rakhshani.

Lack was 7-2-0 with a 1.99 GAA and .935 save percentage in leading the Moose from fifth place to second in the North Division. He finished the month with six consecutive victories, stopping 170 of 178 shots over the second half of the month and made 20 saves in his first career AHL shutout against Houston. In his first season in North America, Lack is 13-7-2 with a 1.98 GAA and .930 save percentage in 22 games. Lack, who turns 23 on Wednesday, is a native of Norrtalje, Sweden, played last season for Brynas IF in the Swedish Elite League and signed as a free agent with Vancouver on April 6.

The Whale nominated Chad Johnson, who was 6-1-1 in eight games. Other nominees included Stalock, Jones, the Sound Tigers’ Kevin Poulin and former Sound Tigers goalie Joey McDonald (Grand Rapids). … Saturday will be the second this season – and second time in the AHL’s 75-year history – that all 30 teams will be playing 15 games in the same day.


Whalers Sports and Entertainment, in association with the XL Center, is offering a discount for “Disney On Ice” shows this week to Whale fans. For discounted tickets, use the discount code WHALES and save $4. Discounted tickets start at $11 for shows Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the XL Center box office, online at or by calling 800-745-3000. For groups of 15 or more, contact the XL Center group sales office at 860-548-2000.

… WS&E chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin will be the guest speaker at the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce breakfast series sponsored by AT&T Connecticut next Tuesday at 8 a.m. at the Sheraton Hartford Hotel on East River Drive in East Hartford. Baldwin will speak about his efforts to revive the local hockey market in Hartford, the Whalers Hockey Fest 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 11-23 and other economic development opportunities.

“I am very excited to have a man of Howard Baldwin’s experience, energy and commitment to Connecticut and the Hartford area speaking at our Chamber event,” Chamber president Ron Pugliese said. “I invite anyone who has the desire to see the Hartford area grow and prosper economically to join us on January 11.”


On-line fan voting for the AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., runs through midnight Sunday at and Players receiving the most votes by position will earn berths in the starting lineups of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference teams. A committee of AHL coaches will select the remaining All-Stars, and all 30 clubs must be represented. By completing the official ballot, fans are entered to win a grand prize of a team-signed All-Star jersey. Ten more winners will receive an official All-Star Classic T-shirt.

The Hall of Fame Class of 2011, to be inducted Jan. 30 at 11 a.m., is Mitch Lamoureux, Larry Wilson and the late Harry Pidhirny and Maurice Podoloff, who grew up in New Haven and graduated from Yale. AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau, former coach of the Hershey Bears and now coach of the Washington Capitals, will be the keynote speaker, and AHL graduate and 2008 Foster Hewitt Award winner Mike Emrick will be master of ceremonies.