Penguins defenseman Bortuzzo is becoming blue line fixture

| Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 11:15 p.m.

Players hungry to establish themselves in the NHL can become easily dejected when not ordered to participate in preseason games.

Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who did not play in the Penguins' first two exhibition contests, has nothing to worry about. His coach has seen enough to believe Bortuzzo is in the NHL to stay.

“Maybe that's an indication that he's not trying out to see if he can play at this level,” coach Dan Bylsma said of Bortuzzo's absence.

“He's not trying out at the NHL level. He's at that level.”

Bortuzzo backed up his coach's words Friday in Chicago. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman was a menacing presence throughout the game. He leveled Blackhawks star Patrick Kane in the first period, accepted a challenge to fight Chicago defenseman Sheldon Brookbank moments later and took part in a nasty exchange with Chicago standout Patrick Sharp that resulted in a Penguins power play.

Bortuzzo also blocked two shots and played with a nasty edge in front of goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

“He played his game,” Bylsma said. “And he played it very well. He was good against good players and not just physically, but with his stick.”

Bortuzzo's work against the Blackhawks was merely an extension of what he has displayed during most of training camp. He has been a defensive presence because of his long reach and physical nature.

“I do feel good about my game right now,” he said. “I feel good about myself, and I'm not trying to do anything special. I'm just trying to play my game.”

Teammates have noticed that Bortuzzo, while not projected to become an offensive threat at the NHL level, has become far more comfortable with the puck.

“I think he's been very good,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who could be paired with Bortuzzo when the season begins. “You can see a comfort level with the puck, he's making good decisions, and I think he's skating very well. The guy is a good defenseman.”

Bortuzzo is well aware of the reality that the Penguins possess a deep blue line — Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are the undisputed top-four and will receive the bulk of the minutes — at the NHL level and recently have drafted flashier prospects such as Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington.

Also, defenseman Brian Dumoulin has emerged as a popular player in the organization, and mainstay Deryk Engelland, a similarly physical player, long has been a favorite of Bylsma's.

And, yet, Bortuzzo's stock is rising. He played 15 games last season, scoring two goals and producing a respectable plus-3 rating while taking on all willing tough customers.

Engelland, meanwhile, was a team-worst minus-6 in the postseason, and the Penguins are strongly considering a demotion to the AHL for Despres, which would push them under the salary cap.

Niskanen also could be traded to place the Penguins under the salary cap.

Bortuzzo's future with the Penguins, however, is looking brighter than ever.

“I'm not overwhelmed by all of the good defensemen in this organization,” Bortuzzo said. “I want to be one of them.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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