Penguins defensemen Bortuzzo, Strait land in unexpected place
Penguins, from left, Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby, Ben Lovejoy and Tyler Kennedy all wear a sweater displaying NHL Players' Association logo as they pause between drills at an informal workout Thursday at the Iceoplex in Canonsburg.
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Their first road game of their season will be tonight, just like the schedule said it would.
And it will be played in New York, just like the schedule said.
But defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait will not spend tonight in the city where they wanted to be. Or playing for the team they hoped to be with. Or even working in the league they had planned to be part of, for that matter.
The Penguins, you see, were scheduled to visit Buffalo tonight, but that game was called off because of the lockout that has shut down the NHL.
So Bortuzzo and Strait, both of whom were intent on earning full-time positions on the Penguins defense this fall, will open the 2012-13 American Hockey League season tonight in Binghamton, N.Y., where Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will face Ottawa's top minor league affiliate.
It's not what either player anticipated, at least until the lockout became inevitable, and certainly is not what either wanted.
Still, neither seems inclined to fixate on -- or fret over -- this unexpected twist in their career paths.
"Someone told me earlier in my career, 'Control what you can control,' " Bortuzzo said recently.
"I'm in the fortunate position to still be playing hockey during a time like this, a lockout. Obviously, I'd rather be making a push for an NHL spot right now, but that's out of my control."
It seems unlikely that Bortuzzo actually will play against the Baby Senators because he has been recovering from an unspecified injury received during an exhibition game eight days ago.
There is, however, a pretty good chance that whenever he gets clearance to play, he and Strait will reprise their role as the Baby Penguins' shutdown defense pairing.
"They've been that for us for three years," said Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes, who went on to acknowledge that "there would always be that temptation" to overuse two players who have been so reliable at that level.
Indeed, Bortuzzo and Strait have established they are more than capable of filling significant niches in the AHL; the challenge for both coming out of the offseason was supposed to be proving that they were ready for steady work in the NHL.
Because of the lockout, it might be a while before they can try to make that point, but that doesn't mean their time in Wilkes-Barre has to be the professional equivalent of treading water.
"I just hope they get something cleared up [in the NHL]," Strait said. "In the meantime, you just have to go about your business here, get better and help this team win.
"At the end of the day, organizations are looking for winners. You can only help yourself if you're helping a team down here win."
If Strait and Bortuzzo are overqualified to compete in the AHL, they hardly are the only ones.
The lockout has led to dozens of promising young players turning up in the minors, where they will try to hone the edge on their games until the NHL gets back in session.
That higher-than-usual level of competition should minimize the danger of players such as Strait and Bortuzzo picking up bad habits from competing against players who are not as far along the developmental curve as they are.
It also helps that both realize their place on the organizational depth chart could be compromised by straying from the lessons they've absorbed to this point in their pro careers.
"They've done a good job of instilling good habits in me for three years," Bortuzzo said. "They expect no difference out of me playing here."
Responsible play isn't all the Baby Penguins expect to get from Bortuzzo and Strait while they're on the roster. Their willingness to work and attention to detail are traits Hynes hopes will provide a template for less-experienced prospects playing in the NHL now.
"It's great to have those two guys here, and the reason for that is the type of character they have," he said. "They're great team guys, they're good leaders for our young players.
"The way they practice, the way they play sets a tremendous example for how we want to do things.
"It's a good opportunity for those guys to continue to develop their games, so that when the lockout ends -- if and when the lockout ends -- they're at a level where they can go to [the Penguins' camp] and really make a statement that that's where they belong, full-time."
NOTE -- Rosenborg Ishockeyklubb, a Norwegian team that struck a deal with Florida forward Jack Skille Thursday, announced it has reached an agreement for Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland to play for it during the NHL lockout. The team website said Engelland will not receive a salary, but will have the value of his NHL contract insured. Engelland, who skated at Southpointe Friday, is scheduled to make his Norwegian debut Thursday.
First Published October 13, 2012 12:00 am