Anthony Bitetto admits running his mouth comes naturally. Which is why he’s already exchanging friendly jabs with many of his Winnipeg Jets teammates, despite only recently meeting most of them for the first time.
"I grew up that way. Being from New York, you kinda don’t know when to shut up, probably," the 29-year-old defenceman from Island Park, N.Y., joked Monday.
That said, Bitetto hopes his play ultimately speaks loudest. The defenceman is in the running to crack the opening-night roster and perhaps even be in the top six, especially with the absence of Dustin Byfuglien and departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in the off-season.
Bitetto will suit up tonight in Calgary for the fourth time in five pre-season games. He’s expected to once again be paired with Tucker Poolman on the blue line.
"I think it’s going well. It’s a good group of guys in here — everyone’s been competing. It’s been some of the toughest and hardest-working practices I’ve been a part of and it’s good to see early. The competition is high," Bitetto said.
The 6-1, 210-pounder spent the first five years of his NHL career with the Nashville Predators, unable to find full-time work behind a loaded defence that included the likes of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. He was placed on waivers in January and claimed by Minnesota, finishing the season with the Wild.
"Those were some elite players, even at three-four, I think they could be ones and twos on other teams with the four of those guys there. Even the five-six, I think I maybe tried to do too much at times, tried to break into that six constantly," said Bitetto, who has two goals and 17 assists in 132 career regular-season games.
He signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Jets this summer that pays him US$700,000 in the NHL. The Jets placed a premium on his character, as Bitetto has a reputation as the kind of "glue guy" every room can use.
"It’s like when you get moved to a new school, making new friends. It’s not easy for everybody, but he doesn’t have that problem. He’s already chirping some of the forwards. He’s got a great personality and that was a real good pickup for us," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Monday.
Bitetto had his best game of the pre-season in Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames at Bell MTS Place, firing a team-high five shots on goal, registering an assist and being a plus-three in 19:37 of action, including solid contributions on a penalty kill that went 3-for-3.
He also had two hits.
"Practises hard, plays hard, just a really good pro. How far he gets up in the lineup, we won’t limit that — we’ll let him come into the lineup and let his play dictate where he plays," Maurice said.
Bitetto isn’t spending a lot of time worrying how things shake out.
"I think the mindset’s the same. You come into camp and try to do your best no matter if you’re here for 10 years or you’re a first-year guy. Regardless of the situation, you’re always coming in with the mindset to compete and to work as hard as you can. And that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do," he said.
"I try to be myself, like to have fun. This game is meant to be fun. You work and there’s time to be serious, but there’s a lot of times to have fun and enjoy these times. When I came in, I tried to make buddies as quick as possible and it’s been good. The team’s really been welcoming. It’s going well. I’m excited."
The Jets will ice a fairly inexperienced lineup in the rematch against the Flames, paving the way for what’s expected to be a wave of cuts on Wednesday.
"It will be the last young group," Maurice said.
Winnipeg has 44 players in camp, but could go down to as little as 26 for the final two pre-season games Thursday at home against the Edmonton Oilers and Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. They have to get down to a 23-man maximum by early next week.
Eric Comrie and Mikhail Berdin are expected to split netminding duties against the Flames. Connor Hellebuyck will start Thursday, while Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit may split the final game.
Defenceman Sami Niku and forwards Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault are dealing with minor injuries and didn’t skate with either group on Monday at Bell MTS Iceplex.
One player who continues to impress is 18-year-old defenceman Ville Heinola, who has played in three of the first four pre-season games. It was notable that Heinola was skating Monday with the group that includes all the Jets regulars, rather than the earlier session that includes the majority of players expected to be assigned to the Manitoba Moose.
Maurice was asked if the 20th pick in this summer’s NHL draft could crack the opening-night roster.
"When does the Winnipeg Jets kind of take priority over the person and the player at 18 years old? I’ve seen him play a few exhibition games. Could he play in the NHL this year? You know, probably at times, from what we’ve seen. Does it make the most sense to have that happen?" Maurice said.
"I feel a gush coming. Like this guy is a player. But we’ve got to be careful, because of his skill set and the way he’s built, of getting too excited."
If not the Jets, the Moose could be an option for Heinola, a European player who was picked in the first round. The other option is to return hm to Finland for the season.
"There’s stages to this that we want to be comfortable with. In a perfect world, I guess yes, every first-round pick would come in and blow the doors off and you’d say ‘Let’s put them in.’ But in a perfect world, those guys would have a camp like Ville’s had and then go play for the Moose," Maurice said.
"Learn the pro game, get stronger, so that when you come up here, you don’t suffer the confidence losses that are inevitable for young players. Even if they are great ones, they go stretches where they’re not scoring or they’re getting run.
"I guess the best way to answer that would (be to) just shut my mouth and say you know what? He’s had a good camp."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at 7:38 AM CDT: Corrects that Bitetto will suit up tonight in Calgary