All of two days into practices at the Penguins' training camp at Consol Energy Center, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo has been one of the stand-outs. Thursday, the large defenseman (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) out-raced everyone in on-ice skating drills while Friday, he displayed a soft touch and confidence with the puck during a scrimmage as a part of a defensive pairing with Matt Niskanen.
It's been difficult for Bortuzzzo to establish his presence at the NHL level the last few seasons as the Penguins have regularly boasted a deep blue line. While he did spent the NHL season in Pittsburgh at the NHL level - management opted to part ways with Brian Strait and Ben Lovejoy instead of running the risk of losing Bortuzzo through waivers - Bortuzzo only appeared in 15 games in 2012-13 with only four of those games coming after March.
Entering this season salary cap concerns could give Bortuzzo, who signed a two-year contract this past offseason as a restricted free agent, a chance to finally secure a top-six role. In the early stages of training camp, he's done quite a bit to prove he belongs on the NHL roster.
Yesterday, he talked about his place in the organization:
How do you approach this training camp after staying with the NHL club all of last season?
"Both of those things. Now I just want to play hockey games. I’ve got the contract out of the way and now it’s just about playing hockey games. I want to play every night. That’s what I want to establish. I want to be a top-six defenseman. Hopefully I get that opportunity through work ethic and playing well."
Were you happy to get that first non-entry level contract this summer?
"Yeah. Obviously that was exciting. I got that done and out of the way and now I just focus on hockey."
What was last season like. You were on the NHL club after the lockout ended but you weren't in the lineup every game.
"I was great. It was a huge learning experience for me. I spent a full season here in obviously a special organization. I can’t [stress] how much I learned from the coaches and the eight defensemen we had here. Being in and out of the lineup is never ideal. It’s kind of tough mentally sometimes."
Was it a confidence boost last season that they kept you on the NHL roster all season instead of risking you through waivers?
"Absolutely. I appreciate some of the confidence they put in me. They obviously had some decisions to make. I was obviously able to do enough through the first half [of the season] in the AHL. That goes a long way for your confidence, absolutely."
What's the biggest key for a defenseman in this system?
"Obviously, there’s different roles guys play but I think the system is the biggest part of having success here. If you’re able to play that and you’re able move pucks up to the forward group, you’re going to have a lot of success. If you’re able to spend as little time as possible in your defensive zone and get it up to the skilled lines we have, that’s where you’re going to have success."
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