When Robert Bortuzzo was on the bubble to make the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, other NHL managers and coaches didn’t know what to make of him.
A lanky, hard-hitting defenceman, the Thunder Bay native had played just 21 games prior to 2013-14, a fact that left him off the opposition radar, said coach Dan Bylsma.
He was such an unknown, whenever they did ask, they’d butcher his name, not sure who he was or what he brought to the table.
They know him now.
Though still not a guarantee to make the Penguins playoff roster, with Kris Letang sidelined by a stroke and no true timetable set for his return, Bortuzzo has found a regular spot as Pittsburgh’s No. 6 defenceman, playing alongside two-time Stanley Cup champion Rob Scuderi.
Bylsma said there’s a lot to like about the 25-year-old’s game.
“He’s a guy who has developed in our organization. He’s developed in Wilkes-Barre, he’s played a lot of games for us. He’s been a shut-down, penalty-kill, hard to play against guy. He’s really developed into that for our team,” said Bylsma last Saturday, when the Penguins paid a visit to St. Paul to take on the playoff-bound Minnesota Wild.
“He’s hard to play against. He’s abrasive, plays with an edge for our team and we’ve asked him to do it against the other teams’ best players, right from the beginning of the year.”
A third-round pick of the Penguins in 2007, Bortuzzo saw his first NHL action in 2011-12, a six-game stint. Last season he managed to stick with the big club all season long, getting into 15 games after the lockout ended, but failed to crack the playoff roster.
The former Fort William North Star was in and out of the line-up to start the current season, but hasn’t been a healthy scratch since mid-March, collecting five assists in a nine-game stretch – including helpers in three straight against Philadelphia, Dallas and Detroit. He also has a multiple-assist game against Calgary in December.
All told he has a career-high 10 assists in 53 games, to go with 74 penalty minutes.
It’s been a bit of a breakthrough year, said the 6-foot-4 Bortuzzo, second on the Penguins blue-line with 130 hits.
“The whole year’s kind of been up-and-down, in-and-out. We’ve got a lot of depth in our line-up. I’m just doing what I can to get into the line-up every night. I’ve been doing some good things lately. Hopefully I can keep developing and keep working on things and will stay in,” he said.
He’s starting to feel like he belongs in the league, adding there’s a comfort factor now that he’s got 74 games under his belt.
“That’s how you’re going to develop. I’ve gotten up to around 52 (games this year) here and I feel like I feel myself developing so hopefully that goes a long way for myself.”
Certainly Letang’s return to the line-up would bolster the Penguins chances to win their first Stanley Cup since 2009.
Bortuzzo, who has one year left on a two-year, $1.2-million deal, is the first to understand that point. What’s good for the team is what’s best, he said. But that doesn’t mean he won’t do what he can to impress Bylsma and the rest of the coaching staff, trying to convince them he belongs in the top six when the regular season ends on Sunday.
“I’m trying to do what I can to show that I belong there in the playoffs. That was kind of a goal of mine at the beginning of the year to get NHL playoff games in here. Playoffs are going to be a rugged style of hockey, with tight checking and a good defence, so hopefully that part of my game will help us out here,” he said.
For more, watch Thunder Bay Television's interview with Bortuzzo tonight at 11 p.m.
Follow Leith Dunick on Twitter: @LeithDunick