Winning Play: Weaponizing...Bortuzzo?

Before Game 1, a scout told me, of the St. Louis Blues, “Their D are very active in the offensive end.”

That’s nothing ground-breaking. The San Jose Sharks, featuring Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, are as active offensively as anybody in the league.

But how St. Louis is activating their defense is a little bit different.

Of course, the Blues don’t have Karlsson and Burns. What they do have is some of the biggest defensemen in the league: Six of their eight defensemen are 6-foot-2 or taller. This is tied for most among playoff teams with the Blue Jackets.

In contrast, the Sharks feature just three blueliners of that height or greater: Justin Braun, Brent Burns and Brenden Dillon

Craig Berube appears to have found a way to put his bigger, less-skilled rearguards in offensively-productive positions.

Last night, Joe Thornton (19) failed to keep the point man Robert Bortuzzo (41) in front of him.

Thornton admitted, “I came out and bit hard, just couldn’t recover.”

What’s interesting, however, was Bortuzzo’s reaction to Thornton’s overplay. The second he saw an opening, the 6-foot-4 defender, who hasn’t scored a postseason goal since 2007 in juniors, crashed the net.

Just coincidence?

Let’s look back at Game 1:

Joel Edmundson (6), seeing that Jaden Schwartz (17) needed center lane drive help, crashed the net without hesitation. Initially given to Schwartz, the 6-foot-4 defenseman was eventually credited with his first of the playoffs.

“Edmundson has been around the net a lot,” the same scout observed.

This isn’t Patrick Maroon or Joe Pavelski or even Burns “around the net a lot.” This is Edmundson, who has scored 13 career goals in 269 regular season games.

I’m not suggesting that relying on scoring from Bortuzzo and Edmundson is a sustainable strategy. It’s not. But it appears Berube has given his defensemen — all of them — the greenlight to crash the net.

Even without the hands and flair of a former forward like Burns, sending Bortuzzo and his ilk to attack the blue paint can be effective in terms of creating traffic and confusing the opposition. Edmundson certainly created traffic in Game 1, while Bortuzzo certainly confused Thornton.

“They exploited us in that area,” Logan Couture acknowedged. “We were running around.”

If you think about it, it’s an effective use of his talent by Berube when done judiciously. He doesn’t have playmakers like Burns and Karlsson on his blueline. When Burns and Karlsson go low, they have the talent to hang in the corners, along the walls, and hold the puck to find the open man. Burns’s shot and Karlsson’s vision would be wasted in front of the net.

Instead, Berube has maximized his talent: He has big, smart and less-skilled blueliners, so why not send them hurtling at the crease from time to time?

If you still don’t believe any coach would use the likes of Bortuzzo and Edmundson as offensive weapons, consider how the Blues’ Individual High-danger Corsi For numbers at 5-on-5 have mushroomed from Mike Yeo to Berube, per Natural Stat Trick. It’s not a smoking gun, but at least supports the suggestion that Berube had some involvement.

Nov. 20, 2018 was when Berube took over for Yeo. It appears that everybody, not just the defensemen, have been charged to attack the net more.

”That was a focus for them coming in,” Pavelski said. “If they’re rolling around, you have to lock up. Be on the inside.”

Couture agreed, “[Can’t] get lost in our d-zone. You got a guy in the d-zone, take him.”