ONE YEAR AGO, Michael Del Zotto began the final week of the season on another non-playoff team in Nashville - and he wasn't even given the chance to play out the string.
He was a healthy scratch in four of the Predators' final five games.
The Flyers were eliminated from contention last week, yet this feels entirely different. It feels like home.
Based on the way December played out for Del Zotto, he wasn't entirely convinced this would be the case.
"I wasn't happy. It was no secret," the defenseman said. "Then I came back in January, and it almost felt like that same attitude that I had at the start of the season, just trying to prove people wrong. I ended up showing the coaching staff that I am an everyday player and deserve those minutes. I just kind if didn't look back from there."
The big question is: How much longer will Del Zotto call Philadelphia home? Five more games? Two more years? Four more years?
Del Zotto, 24, is one of the rare restricted free-agent commodities to have seen the other side of life as an unrestricted player. It didn't go well. After the way last season ended in Nashville, a player who was considered one of the NHL's brightest young stars only 2 or 3 years earlier lingered on the market for more than a month. It is unclear how much rumors about Del Zotto's penchant for nightlife impacted prospective teams.
Other than Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk or maybe Anaheim forward Matt Beleskey, few free agents have a more complicated season to digest than Del Zotto.
He has 29 points in 59 games. He plays on the Flyers' top penalty-killing unit and second power-play unit, and averages nearly 22 minutes per game. Other than his third season on Broadway, when he finished with 41 points in 77 games and 12th in Norris Trophy voting, Del Zotto is producing points at the second-best rate of his career.
"I'd say this is probably the most well-rounded, or maybe most complete, defense I've played in my career," Del Zotto said. "I've played penalty kill in the past, but never on the first unit. It just goes to show you, when the coaching staff has that trust in you, they allow you to play. You breed confidence off that. I'm trying to prove to them every single day that they're making the right decision."
Then again, Del Zotto sat as a healthy scratch for 11 of 14 games in December. Del Zotto thinks he played similarly in October and November, but coach Craig Berube said Del Zotto's game is different.
"We're happy with him the way he's come along," Berube said. "He's defending. That's the first and foremost. Some guys do it differently than others. DZ's got to get on people quick with his speed and have a good stick. He takes care of his own end. He's not trying to beat people one-on-one."
So, with how Del Zotto has played, does Berube regret benching him for so long?
"No," Berube said. "I think at the time, I made player changes in the lineup because that's the way we saw it and what needed to be done."
Del Zotto made $1.3 million this season. It's a big trim from the $2.9 million he earned last season. He obviously isn't at Drew Doughty's level ($7 million), but he's closer to a James Wisniewski ($5.5 million) than Nick Grossmann ($3.5 million) in pay scale.
To this point, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said negotiations have not begun. The Flyers will retain Del Zotto's rights so long as they offer him a $1.3 million qualifying offer, which his agent, Mark Guy, said he fully expects.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Del Zotto said. "I love it here. I love the group of guys here, I strongly believe in this room. It's kind of a weird year, an inconsistent year. I feel we have a team that could do some damage if we stayed consistent. I love everything about it here. It's an unbelievable sports city. I love the fans. It's the closest group of guys I've ever played with."
Could this be a complicated negotiation?
"I have no idea," Hextall said. "Personally, I don't think it should be difficult. I think we know where he was, we know where he is. I think two reasonable people can probably put something together that's fair for both sides. I don't anticipate [it], but until you get there, you don't know."
Hextall said the Flyers could be interested in a longer term deal "depending on the numbers." They'll probably need to pay to buy up a few of his unrestricted years. Del Zotto is also arbitration-eligible should an impasse arrive.
"It's tough to put it all into perspective," Del Zotto said, laughing. "It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride with how things have gone, but that's part of the game. That's part of maturing. I think that's probably the area I've most improved in, maturing as a player and a person. I think that's where I've come a long way. I would love to stay here long term."
Ray Emery is scheduled to start this afternoon's game in Carolina, as the Flyers close out their road slate . . . Their best possible road record is 11-20-10, better than only Buffalo, Toronto, Carolina and Edmonton . . . Steve Mason will start tomorrow against Pittsburgh.