Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto stepping up in the absence of Marc Staal

PHILADELPHIA — A year ago the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jordan Staal came back from injury just in time for the Winter Classic. This year, brother Marc likely won’t be so lucky.

Only recently cleared for contact after a lengthy battle with post-concussion syndrome, New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal will be hard-pressed to play the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday at Citizens Bank Park.

“I’ve thought about it, but it’s not something I’m going to step into if I’m not ready,” Staal said recently. “It’s just not worth it to put yourself in a position like that if you’re not ready physically or mentally. Obviously it sucks that I probably might not get a crack at it. It is what it is.”

Staal’s growth into an All-Star defenseman was supposed to make the Rangers‘ blue line a position of strength this season, but he has yet to play a game. Still, New York’s defense hasn’t fallen off, thanks in large part to the contributions of Michael Del Zotto and Staal’s old partner, Dan Girardi.

“All year long, guys have stepped up to play more minutes. DZ’s been playing incredible and [Ryan McDonagh] and G [Girardi] are handling huge minutes for long stretches,” Staal said. “Guys have played really well. It makes it a lot easier to watch when they’re doing that.”

Del Zotto and Girardi played for Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Not much has changed in terms of style, with Hunter complimenting Del Zotto for his ability to jump up into the play and Girardi for his shot-blocking prowess.

But Del Zotto’s biggest growth in helping compensate for Staal’s injury has been on the defensive end.

“We defend first, and he needs to defend properly. I just think he’s in the right area as far as the arrogance in his game as far as defending,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “I’ve shown clip after clip when he defends the proper way and we get a loose puck, we transition and — bang — he’s up the ice.”

Del Zotto didn’t enjoy his best night Dec. 28 when the Rangers lost to the Caps at Verizon Center, and there have been other bumps along the road. He spent time last season with the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League following a breakout rookie year.

The 21-year-old has bounced back to put up 22 points in 36 games so far this season — and a plus-25 rating to go with it.

“He’s matured. He’s matured off the ice, first, as far as how he handles himself: What it is to be a pro, learning to be a pro,” Tortorella said. “I think his focus off the ice, I think his focus on the ice has gone in a different direction this year. I think he has a much better understanding of how to handle himself where he doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. He’s certainly brought a whole different level of stiffness to his game as far as defending.”

Expectations were high for Del Zotto last season before his dip and trip to the minors. But his resurgence in steadying the Rangers‘ blue line is something his coach called a “great lesson.”

“You just don’t give up on people. Because I know a few people who because he was in the minors and he was struggling and this and that — well, what do we do?” Tortorella said. “God damn, he’s a 20-year-old defenseman in the National Hockey League, where it takes 250, 300 games for these guys to really mature at that position. He’s on the right road. He still has a lot of work to do, but he’s on the right road.”

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