Robert Bortuzzo has gone about things the old-fashioned way. That’s not necessarily by choice, but it’s worked so far.
It’s by far the exception when a 19-year-old defenseman such as Penguins teammate Olli Maatta gets a chance to play full time in the NHL.
Now in his seventh season with the Penguins organization, Bortuzzo, 24, finally has made it.
At least until the team gets fully healthy on defense, if it ever does.
Bortuzzo has taken a traditional path for someone at his position — that is, one that takes a little time.
A third-round draft choice in 2007, Bortuzzo is expected to play in his 31st NHL game tonight when Columbus visits Consol Energy Center. He has been a spectator in the press box as a healthy scratch for more games than that in his time on the NHL roster.
And then there are the 236 games he has played with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. And before that the two seasons of junior hockey in Kitchener, Ontario, after Bortuzzo was drafted.
Patience has become as important to him as moving the puck up to the forwards or putting his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame to good use in a contact sport.
“It’s not easy,” Bortuzzo said. “I know we have a deep squad here. It’s not easy being up there [in the press box]. You never want to be watching hockey games. You want to be in them.
“As a young guy, it’s tough because you want to develop and become better as a hockey player.”
Bortuzzo has played in nine of the team’s 12 games this season with no points, 21 hits and seven blocked shots.
Someone who has seen Bortuzzo’s lengthy development appreciates how much his game has matured.
“Right away, I was able to see some real high-level character in terms of his work ethic, his dedication and his desire to be an NHL player,” said Penguins assistant Todd Reirden, formerly the Wilkes-Barre coach. “Those are the things that most impressed me. He was pretty raw in terms of whether he was ready to play in the National Hockey League, but he’s taken all the steps and strides he needed to to improve his game both on the ice and off the ice.”
So much so that, despite his small number of NHL games he has played, Bortuzzo has been paired a lot this season with Maatta.
“It’s by design,” Reirden said. “Robert has been in our organization, knows the details and the habits that are expected from our defensemen and our system as well as anybody after the years he’s put in. I thought he’d be a perfect match in terms being able to instill some of those things in Olli and give Olli the confidence that he needed.
“Robert talks a lot on the ice. He exudes confidence right now and belief in how the right way to play is. I think that’s had a real positive effect on Olli.”
Maatta quicky seconded that.
“He plays like a pro, a full timer,” Maatta said. “He makes it easier for me. He can do everything. He plays good, solid defense. He moves the puck. He can join the rush. He’s really a good player to play with.”
Bortuzzo has bucked a stereotype sometimes attached to large defensemen. Sure, he’s a physical player — Reirden credited Bortuzzo’s fight with Boston’s Jordan Caron seconds after a Bruins goal as a spark for the Penguins in a 3-2 win Wednesday. But Bortuzzo is more than that.
“It’s a fine line in terms of a bigger guy,” said Reirden, a former defenseman who stands 6-5. “It’s something that’s been easy for Robert and I to relate to.
“With expectations sometimes on bigger guys, he’s done a great job of being able to manage it — invest physically, playing a hard game on the opponent, but also not taking himself out of position.
“His reach and his ability to read plays, the detail in his game, is really impressive. [Wednesday] night was a perfect example of other dimensions he can add. That was a great Robert Bortuzzo game.”
Against Boston, Bortuzzo had six hits, and Reirden said by the Penguins’ measure he did not give up a scoring chance.
With defenseman Rob Scuderi out long term after surgery this week on a broken ankle, Bortuzzo is one of seven healthy defensemen and has carved out a niche as a good partner for Maatta.
“At this point, I know what they want, and I know what I want to bring to the team,” Bortuzzo said. “I’ve been in the organization a long time. Even through Wilkes-Barre, it was the same. That did a great job of preparing me.
“This year, there’s a little bit more of a comfort factor. I think that goes a long way in terms of confidence. I’m just going to take little things I keep learning every year and, hopefully, keep building on them.”
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.