October 1, 2020

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Blue-liner Bitetto's goal is not scoring goals, but still...

Anthony Bitetto is a depth player who concentrates on defending, blocking shots and transitioning the puck quickly to the forwards. (Brandon Wade / The Associated Press files)

Anthony Bitetto is a depth player who concentrates on defending, blocking shots and transitioning the puck quickly to the forwards. (Brandon Wade / The Associated Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2020 (257 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 169 regular-season NHL games before Friday night, Anthony Bitetto had two goals.

A third, originally credited to the 29-year-old Winnipeg Jets defenceman Tuesday night, would have ended a 97-game drought. Alas, it was not to be — disallowed when officials used video review to determine that teammate Nikolaj Ehlers had been offside seconds earlier.

"I mean, they got the call right," said Bitetto prior to the Jets game with the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning. "It's unfortunate.... Obviously it's a bummer; you want to score and hopefully it counts but obviously, it was offside."

Truth be known, when Bitetto wants to satisfy his desire for the adrenalin rush of scoring, he knows just the place and time. Summer days in a local league near his home in Island Park, N.Y., on Long Island are perfect antidote to his goal-starved existence in the NHL.

"I score a lot of goals in men's league (on Long Island)," said Bitetto. "It's a pretty good league but it's just for fun. I play forward, actually. I bust up and down the walls and score goals."

Bitetto prefers to keep the details of his summer scoring exploits private but the role he has carved out for himself in the NHL is basic, easy to understand. He's been a depth player, usually on the third pairing, who concentrates on defending, blocking shots and transitioning the puck quickly to the forwards.

In addition, as he new teammates have found, his brash, loquacious personality has allowed him to bond quickly since signing as a free agent in the off-season.

"Everybody loves him — I think that's a good way to put it, for sure," said veteran forward Andrew Copp. "He doesn't shut up too often but it's always positive, it's always at the right times. It's never distracting attention away from the game. It's never selfish, it's very selfless, to be honest with you. It's very genuine.

"He's a guy who comes to the rink every day in the best mood possible."

Bitetto has been recently been paired with Luca Sbisa on the Jets' top penalty-killing unit. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Bitetto has been recently been paired with Luca Sbisa on the Jets' top penalty-killing unit. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Whether he's hollering encouragement on the bench or on the ice, Bitetto has kept his game basic and his attitude genuine.

"I try to be a good teammate," he said. "I like to have fun. Playing in the NHL is special and I don't want to take it for granted. So I enjoy every day that I'm here."

When injuries have created roster chaos for head coach Paul Maurice, Bitetto has been there and his importance to the club has grown.

More recently, he's been paired with Luca Sbisa on the back end of the club's top penalty-killing unit.

"Bitetto's done a great job," said Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy. "I think our penalty kill's gotten better the last bunch of games and I think he's a big part of it. The thing with him and Sbisa is they're both battlers, not afraid to get in the shooting lanes and I think they both take pride when they're out on the penalty kill to get it shut down...

"Everybody's looking for a solid defenceman that can defend and block shots — a very simple game — and it can keep you in the league a long time."

Despite putting up only four assists in 37 games, Bitetto is content with the stay-at-home role he first learned to accept with the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild.

Bitetto had two bigger offensive years with AHL Milwaukee but getting a promotion to the NHL required an adjustment.

"I was more offensive in college and I came out of college and stayed in that game," said Bitetto. "The coach at the time was Dean Evason and he thought I was good on the power play and it worked. Played a lot of minutes.

"When I got to the NHL and Nashville, there were four pretty top D — we had Shea Weber, Seth Jones, (Ryan) Ellis and (Roman) Josi — so I had to adapt my game. It took me a while to understand that."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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