SIJHL alumni will be crucial for NHL stretch

Robert Bortuzzo
Robert Bortuzzo

THUNDER BAY – SPORTS – The SIJHL is in full swing, with the Thief River Falls Norskies, Dryden GM Ice Dogs, and Thunder Bay North Stars standing as the top three teams. North America’s premier hockey league is also in full swing, the NHL, and with the February 26 trade deadline having past, the top teams are gearing up to push for the playoff spots. In amongst the skirmishes taking place every single night on NHL ice are two greats who spent their early years in the SIJHL. Goaltender Carter Hutton and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo are both former North Stars players and now, coincidentally, both play for the St. Louis Blues. The careers of these SIJHL alumni continue to overlap, first as juniors and now in the NHL. But in the coming weeks, they’ll be needed more than ever by the Blues.

One fine year

In 2005/06, the stars seemed to align for the then Fort William North Stars – renamed to the Thunder Bay North Stars in 2010 – with both Carter Hutton and Robert Bortuzzo taking to the ice. This was Hutton’s first full season for the North Stars, and it was also Bortuzzo’s first season for the team and in the SIJHL. The wins just continuously stacked up for the North Stars, coming first in the league for the third successive year with 50 wins from 52 games.

Hutton was particularly impressive, locking in a 1.84 goals against average and .926 save percentage through 36 games, ending the season as the first recipient of the Best Goaltender award, per Elite Prospects. Following suit, North Stars’ Riley Corbin won the same award just two years ago. Bortuzzo, known for his physicality and defensive positioning, notched four goals and 22 points as well as a whopping 137 penalty minutes in 40 games that year. The duo helped the North Stars win their first and only ever double cup season of the Bill Salonen and Dudley Hewitt Cup. Many North Stars fans revere the two, Hutton especially, tracking him to his first Stanley Cup call up and watching his greatest saves.

Call on Hutton in a time of need

Carter Hutton
Carter Hutton –  IMAGE SOURCE: FanSided NHL, via Twitter

While Carter Hutton has been classed as a backup goaltender throughout his NHL career, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the best, if not the best, back-up in the league. Before his trade in 2016, he was a trustworthy back-up to Pekka Rinne and even shouldered 40 games in 2013/14 when the Finn was out injured. Now, with the St. Louis Blues, he may be muscling in on first-choice goalie Jake Allen. The Blues went on a huge skid to end February, going 2-6-2 heading into March to find themselves looking in on the playoff picture.

Luckily, after some rather weak performances from both goalies, Carter Hutton stood up to be counted and put in back-to-back solid performances, per CBS Sports, in an attempt to kick his team back into gear. With Allen floundering, Hutton has proven once again to be a great option for relief. It’s because of factors like Hutton why the Blues could upset the odds and go deep in the playoffs. As of March 4, they’re at +2000 to win in the Western Conference finals with Betway, with Hutton’s old team, the Nashville Predators, favored at +225. Hutton’s turned up at crucial times throughout this season and last season for the Blues, as shown by St. Louis Today, and will continue to do so along the stretch and most likely in the playoffs. In fact, after 25 starts this season, Hutton stood as the clear top goalie in the NHL with an incredible 2.02 goals against average, 0.934 save percentage and three shutouts.

Blues build from the back

Robert Bortuzzo
Robert Bortuzzo IMAGE SOURCE: St. Louis Blues, via Twitter

The St. Louis Blues have built a team that is strong in defense but also full of flair when pushing into the offensive end. Even with a change at head coach, the Blue remain a tough team to play due to their hardy defensive work. Having only conceded 176 goals in 66 games, the Blues are once again one of the toughest teams to score against in the NHL. While all blueliners pull their weight for the Blues, Robert Bortuzzo goes above and beyond to throw his body around. He may only have eight points from 56 games – his current career best stands at ten points – but his 109 hits, 86 blocked shots, +2 rating, and restrained 35 penalty minutes show that he’s been a force to be reckoned with in each game despite averaging just 14:42 minutes per game.

It’s great to see two SIJHL alumni flourishing in the NHL, but if there’s ever a time to get inspired by performances of those who used to play for the North Stars, it’s now. Given the Blues’ precarious position while having a team destined for success in the playoffs, players like Hutton and Bortuzzo will be pulling out their very best to secure a place in the postseason.

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