HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- These days, Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is doing his extreme best to stay in the lineup among the top six. Off it, Blues fans would never guess what the Thunder Bay, Ontario native is up to.
Picture Bortuzzo, at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, learning how to play a a musical instrument.
But not just any musical instrument.
Yep, a ukulele.
"I'm in the process of (learning)," Bortuzzo said. "I'm kind of self-teaching. I don't know if that's the best method for someone who's not musically inclined whatsoever. We do get a lot of free time sometimes, so instead of plopping in front of a TV, it's grab the old uke-daddy and strum away.
Photos: Robert Bortuzzo
"Someone told me it was one of the easiest instruments to pick up. It's only got four strings and me and 'Uppy' (teammate Scottie Upshall) went and bought ukulele's. That was pretty much it. Now with YouTube and I had one lesson. I was far over my head, but I'm sure I'll go back and try to get the hang of things."
This is the same Bortuzzo that on the ice, can be menacing specimen.
But it's also one that can be found mastering ping pong inside the Blues' rec room at the Ice Zone or wherever they play, or attending the Jim James concert at The Pageant, as he and Upshall did on Wednesday night. James is the lead singer for My Morning Jacket.
"This is the Upshall department," Bortuzzo said. "He's a big My Morning Jacket fan. Kind of introduced me to them last year."
When he's on the ice, Bortuzzo packs quite a wallop. His physical presence and ability to step in and drop the gloves at that size doesn't go unnoticed.
But ever since the day the Blues acquired the 27-year-old Bortuzzo along with a 2016 seventh-round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 2, 2015 for defenseman Ian Cole, it's been a roller coaster of adventure regarding playing time or taking a seat in the press box.
Something had to give.
Even though all seven of the Blues' top defensemen are close on and off the ice, someone is always on the outside looking in. Right now, it's Joel Edmundson, who's missed the past 10 games with an upper-body injury. And in his absence, Bortuzzo, who missed 10 games himself with a lower-body injury before returning Nov. 19 against Nashville, has pounced on the opportunity. He's playing the left side, his offside, as a right-handed defenseman and has averaged 16 minutes, 44 seconds of ice time per game the past five, up from just under 12 minutes a night the first four.
But it's not Bortuzzo's physical nature that's keeping him in the lineup.
"Just really good play. Good play with the puck, better play without it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's in control defensively. He's not over-pursuing contact. He's in a really good positional base and foundation and it's led to good play because of it. He's earned the right. He's going to be a tough guy to take out of the lineup if he continues to play at this pace right now.
"More composure when he doesn't have the puck, better positional play, not running after contact. Seems like the game's slowed down to him, and that's a good sign. He's able to play with great composure. He's always had tremendous character that his teammates love, but he's followed it up with good play and he's earned the right to play more and more every night."
Bortuzzo, who has a goal and an assist in nine games (both points coming the past four), has developed quite a combo on the third defensive pairing with Colton Parayko. Hitchcock has flirted with using Bortuzzo and Kevin Shattenkirk on occasion, but Bortuzzo and Parayko, an imposing figure himself at 6-6, 226 pounds, give the Blues three formidable defensive units.
"Him and 'Pary' have good chemistry going right now," said Pietrangelo, who came up with Bortuzzo's locker room nickname 'Bobo.' "He's been on the left side, which is never easy, but he's done a great job. 'Bobo' knows his game. He's been consistent. Both those guys have been great together. Seems they've found that chemistry.
"He's one of the best locker room guys I've ever seen. Everybody loves him around here, so any time he's having success, it's a good thing."
Said Blues goalie Jake Allen: "(Bortuzzo's) playing great. He's playing on his toes, which is the biggest thing. He's being aggressive, he's not being hesitant. He's jumping into the rush at good times, he's blocking shots. He's keeping the game simple, but when he has an opportunity, he's doing the right things. I like to see the aggressiveness in front of me. It's fun."
Bortuzzo is certainly playing with an aura of confidence, and when one plays with confidence instead of looking over his shoulder wondering if the next mistake may put him back in the press box, chances are they'll stay in the lineup.
"I've always had that confidence in my ability to perform and whatnot," Bortuzzo said. "Things are kind of going nicely right now. It definitely seems like I'm exuding some confidence on the ice and some of the plays I'm trying and making. I don't know if it's a mentality or anything, but it's just a bit of a groove and it's nice.
"It could be maturity. Sometimes you're over-anxious looking for hits, looking for plays that aren't there. As you get older and as you develop, it's just kind of letting the game come to you, settling into the flow of things, taking plays when they're there and not risking things when they're not. I don't know if it's a maturity thing or just watching games and playing in games. That could be all part of it."
Bortuzzo will try to continue to make it hard on Hitchcock to pull him from the lineup now that Edmundson is on the cusp of returning and the Blues having seven healthy defensemen. But in the meantime, he'll keep tuning up the strings and perhaps playing something for his teammates.
"He's getting better," Shattenkirk said of Bortuzzo's ukulele skills. "We've watched his progress. He loves to sit on nice park bench by himself and practice ukulele. I don't know if it's exactly for the music side of it or if it's for the look. I don't know if he's back in a scarf and waiting for a lady to pass him by and drop a sweet tune on her or something.
"That's kind of who 'Bobo' is. He's not going to sit in his apartment and waste away watching TV all day. He's an interesting guy in that respect and a fun guy to hang around with because he just kind of keeps his fingers dipped in a little bit of everything."
In the meantime, Bortuzzo will continue the juggling act of giving the Blues solid minutes, mastering the ukulele and beating Shattenkirk, who Bortuzzo claims is the ping pong king of the team.
"I'd be the first admit I'm not (the best)," Bortuzzo said. "I'm growing as a ping pong player as well. We've got a couple players in here. I'll chalk it up to Shattenkirk. He's got his own paddle from his college days and whatnot. I try and hang with the big boys, but I'm not there. I'm just going to get there eventually."
If this play continues, Bortuzzo can claim he's there on the ice, playing the left or right side. Right now, the left seems to be the preferred destination.
"That's sports. That's good teams, that's good hockey teams. You're going to have depth," he said. "When you are out, you definitely don't want to take steps backwards. You want to take any chance you can to get better, whether it's watching the games or through practice or wherever you can before or after practice. I've taken those opportunities in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Once you stop growing as a player, that's kind of when you're in trouble, I believe, in this league. I'm confident I'm still growing and getting better every day. That's a testament to my teammates and staff here and whatnot. It's nice.
"There's new things every day that you're learning. It's never perfect, nor is it when you're on the right side. You're going to watch your film and you're going to watch other guys who might be playing on the left side. I played with Paul Martin in Pittsburgh, he did it for years and actually enjoyed it. I've seen him do some things and kind of remembered some things he used to tell me."
"A guy like Bortuzzo's really taken advantage of that situation," Hitchcock said. "He's playing better and better every time he's out on the ice, which is a great sign."