It’ll be a new-look blue-line in Pittsburgh this fall.
With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik bolting for Washington via free agency and Deryk Engelland heading north to Calgary, there are plenty of openings on the Penguins defence, even with the addition of highly sought-after Christian Ehrhoff from Buffalo.
Thunder Bay’s Robert Bortuzzo hopes the changes, combined with his improving play, will land him a top 6 spot when the NHL season kicks off.
But he knows there aren’t any guarantees on a Penguins club already loaded on defence.
The 25-year-old, who found himself getting regular minutes in the playoffs after Orpik went down with an injury, is still well down on the Pittsburgh depth chart, behind the likes of Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff.
But with Olli Maata out for up to six months and the Penguins likely looking to dump salary to get under the cap – veteran defenceman Rob Scuderi looks like an obvious candidate to move – could jump up in his fourth season in the league.
“I think I was able to make some strides over the course of the season,” Bortuzzo said. “Obviously it’s tough coming into the lineup sometimes, but I think by the end of the year we solidified ourselves in the six, seven-hole and was able to get some playoff games under my belt.
“I think that’s big for me moving forward.”
A second-round loss was not exactly what he and his Penguins teammates – a group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury were hoping for when the playoffs began.
They truly believed they had what it takes to make it to the Stanley Cup final, where anything can happen.
Despite the disappointing second-round loss to the New York Rangers, Bortuzzo was glad for the learning experience, happy the team had faith to turn to him when Orpik couldn’t dress.
“I think the intensity level rises a bit. The stakes are a little more. I tried to take some of the things I did during the year, some of the confidence I built up and just apply that. You’ve developed your teammate and coach’s confidence and trust in yourself and you kind of just trust yourself and go play your game,” he said.
With a new head coach, Mike Johnston, and a new general manager, Jim Rutherford, in place, the former Fort William North Star knows he’ll have to prove he belongs to new sets of eyes.
He won’t be handed a job based on past performance.
Bortuzzo said he’s spoke briefly with both men, and expects he’ll get his first taste of their expectations when camp opens on Sept. 17.
“I know that no spot is ever given to anyone. You have to earn it and continue to grow as a player,” he said.
“I want to step up my game in certain areas, such as being solid defensively and then maybe getting some more penalty-killing time and what. That’s what we’re shooting for and we’ll see what things bring here.”
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