Sometimes in hockey just the threat of physical play or a big hit goes as far as the act itself.
When the St. Louis Blues have defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in the lineup, it’s like having a 6-foot-4, 215-pound bomb in the arsenal. The opposition is never quite sure when it might go off.
“I think they knew what they were getting when they brought me in, said the 26-year-old Bortuzzo, obtained in a trade deadline deal with Pittsburgh that sent defenseman Ian Cole to the Penguins. “I’m not going to change my game, I’m going to try to bring some of that edge and grit and some of that toughness and physical play that’s expected.”
Bortuzzo, 26, was back in the lineup Thursday against Calgary on a defensive pair with veteran Barret Jackman.
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“We really think we need a guy like Bortuzzo,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo, a healthy lineup scratch in three of the last four games before Thursday. “He didn’t deserve to come out based on his play and he deserves to come in based on his play. Bottom line, it’s a competitive cauldron in our hockey club right now. We’ve got good players.”
Asked whether the Blues are a better and potentially stronger team with Bortuzzo in the lineup, Hitchcock said. “When we’ve used him and (Petteri) Lindbohm ... when those two have been on the ice we play a different game, a more robust game, and we think that has real value.”
Whether it’s sticking up for teammates, dropping the gloves or dropping the hammer on someone, Bortuzzo is ready for all of the above. Though he’s been here for only a short time, Bortuzzo is impressed by what he has seen from his new team.
His new teammates are pretty fond of him as well.
“I like their work ethic and competitiveness, I feel like that’s second to none in the league,” Bortuzzo said. “Come playoff time, that’s huge. It’s a close-knit group who wants to sacrifice for each other and down the stretch and into the playoffs, that’s huge in the winning formula.”
Bortuzzo also scored a goal in a win over his former team and has showed puck-moving skills that might have been overlooked because of his size and history of visits to the penalty box (177 penalty minutes in 122 NHL games before Thursday).
He had one goal and two points in his first nine games with the Blues.
“Obviously he brings a lot of bite to his game,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “For as big as he is, I think people don’t realize how smooth a skater he is, how smooth he is with the puck. He’s extremely poised with the puck, which was something that really caught my eye.
“He just has the ability to make plays and he’s not an off-the-glass-and-out guy, he’s looking to make the next good play to put his teammates in a good position.”
But it’s the physical edge to his game that led Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong to bring Bortuzzo here at the trade deadline. After trading physical defenseman Roman Polak to Toronto in the offseason for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, the Blues helped their transition game.
The defense definitely got deeper with the addition of Gunnarsson and St. Louisan Chris Butler and the emergence of Lindbohm, another gritty youngster. The trade for Bortuzzo and veteran Zbynek Michalek reshaped the unit once again and with the playoffs just around the corner, competition for playing time is intense.
At one point the Blues had nine NHL-caliber defensemen at their disposal.
“There’s a lot of depth here, up front and on the back end,” Bortuzzo said. “Any time you’re joining a team that’s looking to make a deep playoff run, you know they’re going to have depth at a lot of positions. Who knows what’s going to happen night to night, you just want to be ready when called upon, contribute and play well when you’re in there.”
In the final year of a contract worth $650,000, Bortuzzo credits his teammates and the Blues’ coaching staff for making the transition from his first NHL trade a lot easier.
“It’s obviously something I never had to go through, but the group’s made it a lot easier than I thought it was going to be, the staff as well,” Bortuzzo said. “I’m part of this team now and these are hopefully going to be my teammates for a long time, so that’s just having a competitive edge and settling in with a great group of guys.
“If we can stand up for guys and play hard and play for each other, that’s what we want to do as a group.”
Shattenkirk, who recently returned from abdominal surgery, said the depth and competition is pushing everyone.
“I think it’s a fight to stay in the lineup on the back end,” he said. “Who stays where and who plays with who is what we’ll figure out in the next week or so, but that healthy competition is good for a team to not allow guys to be complacent.”