In just over a year's time, Anthony Bitetto's role with the Nashville Predators changed dramatically.
Prior to training camp last summer, Bitetto was a long-shot seventh defenseman on a two-way contract. After a great camp, Bitetto made the final roster and was soon expected to compete as a bottom pairing blue-liner. Despite being a regular healthy scratch and a brief conditioning stint in Milwaukee, "Tony Two-Bits" fulfilled his role nicely in the first half of the season.
Then, when Seth Jones was traded away in January, Bitetto's role and expectations increased. He responded with respectable offensively-minded defensive play down the stretch for the Predators. He was then rewarded for his efforts with a two-year, $1.2 million contract in February.
(stats from hockey-reference.com)
If you translate those six points over the course of an 82 game season (assuming his role remained unchanged), he would finish with around 16-17 points. Not bad for a bottom pairing defenseman. Bad for Dan Girardi, Cody Franson, and Marek Zidlicky maybe (all of whom finished last year with 16-17 points), but not for Anthony Bitetto.
While the story of the '15-16 Predators season may not feature Bitetto on the front cover (or the back cover, for that matter), the role he played on this team should not be overlooked. When he was called upon to help replace the loss of Jones, he answered the call with energetic play, good offensive instincts, and a willingness to take on a difficult role on the team.
(graphic from hockeyviz.com)
Bitetto spent the majority of his time with Barret Jackman, which makes sense--Jackman was paired with Jones prior to his departure. While this partnership was great for Bitetto, it wasn't great for Jackman, who was performing well above his usual metrics when partnered with Jones.
Jackman with Jones combined for a 59.3% Corsi For in 477 minutes, while Jackman with Bitetto managed only 46.3% Corsi For in 178 minutes. That 46.3% Corsi For, by the way, was enough to raise Bitetto's Corsi average over the course of the year. So, yeah... great for Bitetto, not so great for Jackman.
Overall, Bitetto's season wasn't anything to write home about; unless you were Anthony Bitetto. He had his moments of inspiration, his moments of doubt, and a few moments of glory. For the most part, he filled his expected role and helped the loss of Jones not hurt as much. While the debate may continue whether Bitetto or Petter Granberg should get the primary duty on the bottom pairing next year, Bitetto made a convincing argument that it should be him.
Best Moment of the Season
Bitetto's best moment came in Calgary, where he netted his first career NHL goal. Showing off his offensive instincts, Bitetto pinched down at the right moment to pounce on a puck in front of a nearly empty net. Keep your eyes peeled for that sneaky pass from Mike Fisher to set up No. 2.
Did you see it? I know this highlight is supposed to belong to Bitetto, but holy cow, Fisher. Bitetto's goal would begin a late comeback for the Preds, who tied the game late (Fisher, again) and extended their point streak to a franchise record 14 games.
On and off the ice, Bitetto imbues Americana. Maybe it's mostly the accent, but Bitetto gives great interviews. He has loads of character and seems like a fun guy in the locker room. He had at least one in-game interview with Lyndsay Rowley that was gold. Here is an interview he gave last year after his call-up, where he shares a funny story about being late to the game against the Sharks. "My bag's not he-yah!"
Worst Moment of the Season
It's a bit unfair to highlight the worst moment of the season for a player like Bitetto. It would be like your boss asking you to evaluate your weaknesses after your first six months at a new job. But I suppose if you have to pinpoint one, it would be the first game after the Jones trade.
In dealing Jones for Ryan Johansen, the Predators knew they would need a seventh defensemen to step into a starting role and own it. Bitetto's first real crack at the job came against the Colorado Avalanche on January 8th. In 23 shifts, he allowed 14 shot attempts, finishing with a 31.3% Corsi For. After a bad tripping penalty early on, he managed to eke out 12 minutes of ice-time without too much bleeding. The Preds lost 5-3, spoiling Johansen's debut. It was a forgettable, if not worrisome, dress rehearsal for Bitetto.
Fortunately, Bitetto eased into his new role from there, with no major blemishes the rest of the season.
Trending Up or Down?
Trending (slightly) up. The guy managed to get himself an in-season extension, which says something. With the buyout of Jackman, Bitetto has as good a chance of anyone to land the spot opposite the newly acquired Yannick Weber. But the expectations are different. This time last year, Bitetto wasn't even a lock to make the roster, let alone be a role player on a playoff team. He will have to improve upon last year's numbers to keep his stock from falling.
FINAL GRADE: B+
The entire OTF staff will put their thoughts together and voice their opinions on player grades at the conclusion of this series of articles.