Monday, October 10, 2016

Bortuzzo making case to be among top six

Defenseman has had one of best camps according to 
Hitchcock; Allen to skate on Tuesday, could join teammates for practice

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- No matter who the Blues' seventh defenseman is, rest assured they are in good hands in case someone from the top six cannot play on any given night.

Most of the time since his arrival late in the 2014-15 season, Robert Bortuzzo's been that guy.

The man teammates call 'Bobo' (pronounced BOB-oh), has been the buffer in case someone needs to step into the lineup.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo has had a camp that has gotten the attention
of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.

Bortuzzo, 27, has been the good soldier, ready when called upon, and has been effective when summoned.

But Bortuzzo played in just 40 of 82 games last season and five of 20 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and like anyone else in the NHL, they want more.

And based on Bortuzzo's camp heading into the season-opener Wednesday in Chicago, he may very well be in the opening night lineup.

A Thunder Bay, Ontario native, Bortuzzo didn't go out of his way to with training and such. That's a given. But ... 

"Every summer you're working on new things, whether it's on the ice or in the gym and getting stronger," Bortuzzo said. "At this point in my career, I know what it takes to be in the league and have success. I'm always working on my skating and puck movement. That's a big part of my game. We play a high-tempo game and I want to keep up with these forwards and join the rush and what-not. I feel like through camp, I improved as it went on. It's nice to play in that last (preseason) game and do some good things, but like any player in here, I'm sure you just want to keep going and keep getting better.

"It's obviously a goal since I turned pro to keep growing as a player and playing more minutes and contributing as much as possible. Obviously you want to be in there every night. That's why we do this. You want to be in there with your teammates contributing. I never really look at myself in a position like that. I'm always just looking to grow, take more steps as a player."

It's obvious coach Ken Hitchcock has seen Bortuzzo take those steps. After Saturday's 2-1 win in the preseason finale against the Blackhawks, Hitchcock singled out Bortuzzo and goalie Carter Hutton as the players that had the best training camps, and in recent days, he's been working in the top six with Colton Parayko on the third pair, and doing so playing the left side.

"It's something I've kind of worked on in the summer knowing we have a really strong back-end and our righties are extremely talented players," Bortuzzo said. "It's just something you work on in practice."

And Hitchcock has been impressed with the work.

"He's just so much more solid in his own zone, his reads, his disposition on the ice," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "He's not panic-checking like when he first got here. He's in position, he gets to position quickly defensively. I think it sets up his transition. He's not afraid to carry the puck, he makes good decisions offensively. He's turning himself into a good player right now. 

"He's not afraid to join the play, he's not afraid to activate, and that's a good thing for us."

"He's been confident all camp. He's been real good," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said of Bortuzzo. "He played great on Saturday. You know you're going to get quality minutes from 'Bobo' every time he steps in the lineup. He may not be in there every day, like last year, he wasn't, but when he came in, he was effective. He's tough to play against. I wouldn't want to play against him. Saturday was a prime example of that." 

With the Blues looking to amp up their tempo in games and go the way of the game (younger and faster), Bortuzzo may be an option the Blues look at more -- at least at the outset -- as opposed to the more stay-at-home Joel Edmundson, known more for his physical play.

"You need that extra wave coming off the rush sometimes," Bortuzzo said. "It's not easy to score goals in this league. My no means am I looking to set offensive records or anything, but it's just supporting the play and being in the right place for guys when they need an outlet and what-not. It's all about evolving. The game evolves and you kind of have to as a player, too. At the end of the day, I just want to be hard to play against, solid defensively and a solid puck mover for all our talented forwards."

Edmundson recently missed a day of practice after blocking a shot in a preseason game against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 5. But Hitchcock said it has nothing to do with why Bortuzzo is right there in the mix.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) plays a puck while being
defended by Colorado's Francois Beauchemin last season.

"No, 'Eddy's good. 'Eddy's 100 percent," Hitchcock said. "We could have played 'Eddy' in the last game, just opted not to. If 'Borts' gets in, it's because he's earned it and he's beat someone else out of a starting spot."

And the low-keyed, 6-foot-4, 215-pound Bortuzzo will let his play dictate that decision.

"I got a little bit bigger, definitely feel stronger," Bortuzzo said. "I do a lot of stuff in terms of footwork and speed stuff because it's all part of the game today. Maybe a little bit stronger, but I think I weighed the same and am the same height. 

"I feel good. It's always nice coming in feeling good and feeling strong."

* Allen to skate Tuesday -- Goalie Jake Allen will skate with trainers before practice on Tuesday, and if all goes well, Allen will then join teammates for practice and be in goal when the Blues open the season against the Blackhawks.

Allen (lower body) was injured late in the first period of the preseason win against the Blackhawks on Saturday after teammate Carl Gunnarsson's elbow fell on Allen's skate, causing the discomfort, perhaps the left ankle or left knee.

Jordan Binnington was on the ice with Carter Hutton for practice Monday after being recalled from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League on Sunday, and is here as insurance, but if Allen can go, it would be a huge sigh of relief heading into the opener.

"He's going to skate tomorrow with the trainers and if he feels fine, he's going to join us for the practice; good news," Hitchcock said of Allen. "We'll hopefully see him out with us right away, but first, we'll make sure he'll do his maneuver skate in the morning and then hopefully join us at 10:30 if everything goes well there.

"... If everything just goes well, he's gonna play Wednesday. That's kind of where we're (assuming). It doesn't have to go really well, it just has to go well. He's doing fine."

If somehow Allen doesn't go Wednesday, the Blues are comfortable going to Hutton, who had a very impressive camp and played well in each of his preseason games.

"We're not planning on playing without (Allen), I guess. (But) if 'Hutts' comes in, I've played two periods with him. He was outstanding against Chicago," Pietrangelo said. "Hitch said he was the best player in camp, so that's why you've got depth and that's why we brought him in. We feel confident either way."

"Our focus right now is on Jake," Hitchcock said. "He's deserved to start. He's had a good camp also. Our hope is that he gets in and he's ready to go. That's kind of our focus right now. 

"If we've got to go to 'Hutts,' then we're more than comfortable. Our focus right now is making sure Jake is at 100 percent so he can start the season ready to go."

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