The NY Islanders' argument to play and to bench Robert Bortuzzo

There are pros and cons to playing the 34-year-old defenseman down the stretch in 2023-24.

Dec 27, 2023; Elmont, New York, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) controls the
Dec 27, 2023; Elmont, New York, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) controls the / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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The NY Islanders are as whole on defense as they have been all season. Aside from Scott Mayfield who just underwent season-ending surgery, all eight defensemen are finally healthy. This includes six of the seven on the opening night roster, as well as both in-season trade and waiver acquisitions. Given this conundrum, Patrick Roy has eight defensemen to choose from for just six spots on a nightly basis.

In writing out the lineup card, the coaching staff must take into consideration the 2024-25 roster just as much as winning the game in front of them. The Islanders will have holes to fill on the blue line with limited cap space come the offseason. Furthermore, the team has to decide on pending free agents and fringe players with less of a cap hit. One of those free agents getting an opportunity is 34-year-old Robert Bortuzzo who is just returning from LTIR with an upper-body injury. On a team that is evaluating for next season as well trying to make the playoffs in 2023-24, what is the purpose of playing Bortuzzo down the stretch?

The reason to play him: Bortuzzo's veteran presence and a potential bench role for next season.

In the wake of Ryan Pulock's lower-body injury against the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 7th, Lou Lamoriello needed to find a replacement for one of his most consistent defensemen. In reaction, the Islanders acquired Bortuzzo from the St. Louis Blues for a 2024 seventh-round draft pick on December 8th. Before the trade, the 34-year-old defenseman was coming off the bench in spot starts for the Blues, only appearing in 4 games this season. While this trade was never going to make the Isles a playoff contender, this move was made to get an experienced NHL blue liner on the roster until Pulock was ready to return.

Bortuzzo was the ideal trade not because of his talent level, but for his veteran presence. A 15-year NHL veteran, Bortuzzo has always been a bottom pairing on the Blues and has performed well in that role. His profile is an aggressive forechecker who isn't afraid to block shots for his goaltender. In seasons in which Bortuzzo played 70 or more games, he recorded more than 100 blocked shots and hits in each of them. Furthermore, he was a part of the Blues team that won the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Championship. For this experience, Bortuzzo can be trusted in his regular 14-minute ice time type of role.

In evaluating for next season's roster, Bortuzzo can be a candidate to return in a lesser role than he was acquired. Mayfield is coming off of surgery, meaning there is no guarantee he will be ready for training camp. In this scenario, the Isles will need right-handed blue line depth to replace his ice time. Preferably, that defensive depth will have experience with the other Islanders' defensemen. For the right price, Bortuzzo fits this role especially since he will not garner more than a one-year contract.

The reason to bench him: An opportunity to evaluate a younger player in Samuel Bolduc.

Aside from Bortuzzo, the Islanders have multiple defensemen who are not guaranteed ice time right now or in the future. Sebastian Aho is one of those 'fringe' players set to reach free agency. In 2023-24, Aho has struggled to play on his offside this season, though he's still just 28 years old and did develop great chemistry with Mayfield last season. Since both Aho and Bortuzzo will be free agents, they fall into the 'who gives us the best chance to win now' category given they are not guaranteed to return. Neither one will command a multi-year contract in free agency and have different defensive characteristics, making this decision on who should play up a moot point based on matchups.

Samuel Bolduc is the other fringe player who is questionable to return in 2024-25. He had a disappointing start to the season filling in for Adam Pelech on the Isles blue line, though started to play well when paired with Bortuzzo. He is also just 23-years-old and figures to improve with experience. Bolduc is also signed for $800K through next season, making his current benching in favor of Bortuzzo more questionable. An argument can be made for Bolduc to receive more of an opportunity since he is the most likely to return as well as his potential upside. 

Additionally, the Islanders know the type of performance Bortuzzo will provide. He is not known for his offense, having recorded just 54 points in 424 career games. The decision to write off Bolduc at just 23 years old with just 50 games of NHL experience is questionable. The Islanders possess a roster that is bereft of younger talent and will be limited in their ability to sign free agents. Playing a 34-year-old rental player down the stretch does not bode well in evaluating for the future. For this reason, it makes more sense for the Isles to play Bolduc instead of Bortuzzo.