Idle defenseman Bortuzzo still a vital piece to the Pens
Robert Bortuzzo is caught in a numbers game on the blue line for the Penguins -- and the team knows there no chance he would clear waivers -- so the young defenseman has been little more than a spectator during the current 10-game winning streak.
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A lot of factors have made the Penguins' 10-game winning streak possible.
The play of defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is nowhere on the list.
Well, maybe -- maybe -- at the very bottom. In tiny print.
Harsh as that might sound, the plain truth is that just about the only time Bortuzzo's name has been mentioned publicly during their run has been when the healthy scratches are announced.
He didn't dress for any of those 10 victories, and there's no indication that will change when the Penguins visit the New York Islanders Friday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Penguins have carried eight defensemen on their NHL roster and, even with Kris Letang temporarily out with an apparent leg injury, Bortuzzo hasn't risen above the No. 7 slot.
That's a problem because the Penguins, like most teams, rarely dress more than six.
The other defensemen all have gotten work during the current surge and, between their generally solid play and most coaches' reluctance to tamper with a winning personnel mix, it's easy to see how Bortuzzo's absence from the lineup might go on for a while unless there are more injuries.
Nonetheless, assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense, insists that having Bortuzzo spend the Islanders game in street clothes is not the foregone conclusion many might believe it to be.
"Every day, it's a decision for us," he said. "Not ever do we say, 'For sure, he's out.' He's in the conversation every day when we're talking about it, deciding who should be in there and who shouldn't. That's a credit to him. Whether we're winning games or playing well or not, it always comes up to whether his style and the way he plays the game fits best for [a particular] opponent.
"If he continues to work like he does, he'll find his way in there again."
In recent weeks, however, Bortuzzo's time on the ice has been limited to game-day skates, warm-ups and practices, such as the optional one Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
Optional for most players, anyway. When a guy has gotten into only 11 of 31 games, taking the day off wasn't a realistic option, which is why Bortuzzo was the first one on the ice.
The path back into the lineup for him might not be apparent at the moment, but the one that leads to a reclining chair and the TV remote control definitely isn't it.
"You just kind of keep working and be ready to go when called upon," Bortuzzo said. "I'm treating practices as if they're my games right now, as I was at the beginning of the year.
"I'm staying positive, understanding the situation and taking it in stride, trying to be a good team guy out there and just keep ready."
Under other circumstances, Bortuzzo might have been assigned to the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre by now, because being out of games for such an extended period can only impede his development.
He would have to clear waivers to join the Baby Penguins, though, and the chances of him passing through unclaimed are a bit less than microscopic.
Though Bortuzzo has been mostly a depth player this season, he has the potential to eventually assume a shutdown role -- something he has done effectively in major-junior and minor league hockey -- at this level.
He is 6 feet 4, 215 pounds, and, while soft-spoken and unfailingly polite off the ice, apparently carries an extra agitation chromosome, because he is purported to have a knack for getting opponents off their games.
"We've seen him [fill a shutdown role] in Wilkes-Barre," Reirden said. "There was a high level of quality [play] down there during the lockout, and he did a phenomenal job.
"Being that big, and with the ability to skate and his active stick, putting him into that situation is something we would feel comfortable with.
"We certainly never have felt a lack of confidence when he's out there against [Alex] Ovechkin or [Martin] St. Louis or any of those players he does a good job against."
Bortuzzo's long-term future as a defensive defenseman aside, his biggest impact for the moment will continue to be the way his presence keeps co-workers aware that should the quality of their performance slip, there is a capable replacement on hand to move into their spot.
While the value of that shouldn't be downplayed, the Penguins know they can expect more from Bortuzzo.
"Obviously, at 6-4, the range and the reach he has, and his ability to defend and stand up for his teammates are all attributes we love to have as part of our organization," Reirden said.
"Injuries do happen and we're very confident that when that opportunity does come his way again, he'll take advantage of it."
And possibly even start a streak of his own.
First Published March 21, 2013 12:00 am