Penguins' Bortuzzo's future is on his stick


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Robert Bortuzzo is not the best-known prospect on the Penguins' organizational depth chart.

Not the most flashy, either.

But he might be closer to pulling on the parent team's sweater than most guys drafted the past few years.

"By the end of the year, I want to see this guy in some National Hockey League games," assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. "This year, [getting] National Hockey League games should be one of his goals, for sure."

Bortuzzo, a defenseman, was the Penguins' third-round draft choice in 2007. Barring injuries or trades, he likely is a long shot to be in the lineup for the regular-season opener Oct. 7 against Philadelphia at the Consol Energy Center, although that will be his objective when training camp opens this weekend.

"Absolutely," Bortuzzo said. "I'm a competitive guy. It's in my nature to make a push for those spots. I'm just going to work hard and try to make their decision as tough as possible.

"I don't see why, if I work hard and play my type of game, I shouldn't have an opportunity."

If he doesn't have one, it probably will because of the number of veterans already on the payroll. Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are pretty much assured of jobs, while Ben Lovejoy is slotted into the sixth spot and Deryk Engelland is the pre-camp favorite to be No. 7.

Lovejoy and Engelland have no guarantees, however, and prospects such as Bortuzzo, Brian Strait, Simon Despres and Carl Sneep -- along with more established players such as Andrew Hutchinson, Corey Potter and Steve Wagner -- figure to have a chance to wrestle jobs away from them.

"There's an opportunity here in training camp," Botterill said. "[Bortuzzo] is going to be in the mix. We have a lot of competition for those sixth and seventh spots.

"Is it going to be difficult for him to make it? Yeah, because you have players who have NHL experience battling for those spots. But you guys like him and Brian Strait are going to be right in there."

Bortuzzo, 21, has limited professional experience, having appeared in 75 games with the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre in 2009-10. At the same time, his size (6 feet 3, 196 pounds), wingspan and skating make him an intriguing candidate to step up to the NHL.

"He fits our style of play well because he's big, but he skates well, so he can get up with the play," Botterill said. "Is he going to be this big offensive threat? No.

"But because of his speed and his intelligence, he can get up on the play and support the rush. What excites us most is his size down low, being physical, and also his reach. His ability to have a strong [defensive] stick."

Bortuzzo had two goals with the Baby Penguins last season, and six in 138 career games with Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League. The Penguins, however, are most interested in having their defensemen get the puck up ice to their forwards, and Bortuzzo has shown he can make a good first pass.

He mostly earns his living in the defensive zone, however, and credits the Wilkes-Barre coaching staff last season with honing his play there.

"There were tons of little details that I hadn't known about the game that I learned working down there with John Hynes and Todd Reirden," Bortuzzo said.

"One of the big things I learned was my stick detail, having a good stick on puck. They really focused on that with me, since I'm a bigger guy with a long stick. You have to utilize your body and your assets. That was one of the things I worked on a lot."

Bortuzzo also added an edge to his game over the past couple of winters. Whether that was because shoulder problems had limited his ability to play the body in Kitchener or because his game is evolving seems to be a matter of perspective.

"He's always been a big guy, but he had more of a laid-back attitude," Botterill said. "We saw it throughout last year in Wilkes-Barre. He was willing to stand up for teammates, was willing to be physical down low."

Bortuzzo, however, said it is more a matter of his natural development.

"In junior and in minor hockey, I wasn't an overly aggressive player, but, in my last year of junior and first year of pro, you kind of develop that part of your game," he said. "It's all about being competitive and working hard."

So is earning a job in the NHL, whenever it happens.


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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