Advanced Stats: Analyzing Del Zott’s VUKOTA projection

Glen Miller

In our previous post we introduced ESPN.com’s Summer Skate preview of the 2012-2013 New York Rangers. Using Hockey Prospectus’ VUKOTA projection system, Timo Seppa discusses how VUKOTA projects the 2012-2013 season for one player whose performance is predicted to be on the rise and one expected to decline. Marc Staal is destined to rebound from an injury-plagued campaign and post an improved GVT according to VUKOTA. On the flip side, VUKOTA predicts Michael Del Zotto to fail to perform up to last year’s standard. Let’s review the case against a repeat performance from Del Zotto.

Last season Del Zotto began to put it all together after an up-and-down start to his brief career. The talented former first-round draft choice in 2008 broke into the league with a bang in 2009-2010 recording 37 points in 80 games as a 19 year-old rookie and posting a very solid GVT rating of 6.4. A vast majority of that GVT came courtesy of his offense where he was a 6.0 GVT.

His sophomore season was a dud as his GVT fell to -0.1, or essentially replacement-level, in roughly half of a season’s worth of games.

As the 2011-2012 campaign approached no one knew what to expect from the third-year defender but Del Zotto bounced back in a big way by recording the 8th highest GVT rating among NHL defensemen in 2011-2012 at 12.6. Unlike his rookie season, the GVT metric looked almost as favorably upon his defense (6.0 GVT) as his offense (6.5 GVT). This suggests Del Zotto is beginning to become a better two-way player.

According to VUKOTA however, Del Zotto’s performance is set to take a bit of a tumble as he is forecast to record a GVT of 8.7 in 2012-2013. That mark would have ranked tied for 36th last season among all blueliners. Here’s what Seppa had to say about Del Zotto.

“Will Del Zotto become an elite point-producer from the blue line, perhaps the next Erik Karlsson? Or a third-pairing defenseman who gets some second-unit power-play time? MDZ certainly was considered a valuable enough asset to end up off limits in the Rick Nash deal, but he has proven to be hit-and-miss offensively in his three NHL seasons, and has had only one ostensibly solid season on defense. With Staal regaining some of the top responsibilities, it’s likely that Del Zotto’s prime minutes will decrease unless he keeps the quality high.”   

Seppa’s characterization of Del Zotto as “hit-and-miss” on offense is slightly unfair. A defenseman’s career production rarely follows a linear path. It’s expected that there will be some ups-and-downs in the performance of a defenseman; particularly in the player’s early seasons. You could even cite the small sample size argument given Del Zotto’s relative lack of NHL experience.

Remember Del Zotto has appeared in just three NHL seasons and turned 22 early this past summer. Intuitively it shouldn’t be a shock that Del Zotto’s performance has hit some peaks and valleys along the way. The fact his defensive GVT was nearly the equal of his offensive GVT in 2011-2012 can be viewed as a good sign Del Zotto is growing into a quality top-four defender.

Seppa also speculates that the return to health of Staal will cut into Del Zotto’s quality ice time. He suggests it is “likely that Del Zotto’s prime minutes will decrease unless he keeps the quality high.”

It’s no forgone conclusion Del Zotto will lose quality ice time though. He earned the trust of Tortorella last year (not an easy thing to do) and even with a healthy and productive Staal in the lineup during the postseason, Del Zotto played better than 21 ½ minutes per contest. That was a decrease of just less than a minute over his regular season average. If his ice time during the most critical time of year suffered little with Staal’s return to the lineup why should it do so this coming season?

Del Zotto did see 0:23 less of PP ice time (which qualifies as quality time) per game in the postseason despite the club getting 15.6% more man-advantage time in the playoffs. Some of that might went to Staal who saw an increase of 0:14 per game of PP ice in the playoffs. However there is little question Del Zotto is a talented offensive player and with the addition of Rick Nash conceivably improving a relatively lackluster PP Del Zotto’s offensive GVT could benefit from that boost enough to offset any decrease in man-advantage ice time.

The Rangers didn’t add anyone of significance to the club’s blueline during the summer instead re-signing veteran defenders Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger. Given Tortorella’s preference for pairing RH shooting defensemen with southpaws it’s not likely that either of those righties will cut into Del Zotto’s ice time either.

As noted earlier, a player’s development doesn’t necessarily follow a perfectly linear path. There are bound to be ups-and-downs along the way. However, as Hockey Prospectus has calculated already, a defenseman doesn’t reach his prime production until age 25.8. With Del Zotto having just turned 22 it’s fair to conclude he hasn’t reached his prime years quite yet which suggests his 2011-2012 performance is likely not a statistical outlier. Combined with what figures to be little to no change in his quality of ice time, there doesn’t appear to be a singular reason to believe Del Zotto’s GVT to suffer as much as VUKOTA suggests.