WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Paul Maurice heard the Long Island in Anthony Bitetto right away. And with the defenseman from Island Park now possibly missing time with a lower-body issue, the Jets coach knows his team’s bench and dressing room might be a bit quieter.
“He’s not the shy kid in the classroom you don’t get to know until Christmas,” Maurice said of Bitetto, 29, in his first season with the Jets after splitting last season between the Predators and Wild. “He had three nicknames within the first week. That’s a compliment.”
Bitetto exited Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss to the visiting Coyotes in the second period and he did not practice on Wednesday.
Maurice listed him as day to day but he’ll likely miss his first game for the Jets on Thursday night against the visiting Islanders.
“We had two or three really good sources from the Nashville room about his character and the kind of person he is and he’s lived up to that,” Maurice said. “He’s talking non-stop on the bench, on the ice, in practice, in the locker room. He’s got a great accent. So, he’s a character and, because of that, he gets connected to every player really quickly.”
Bitetto’s likely absence is just another blow to the Jets’ in-flux defense corps. Dustin Byfuglien is still pondering his future and officially suspended. Jacob Trouba got his trade request granted and was swapped to the Rangers for a package that included Neal Pionk. Tyler Myers left via free agency for Vancouver.
Bitetto has one assist in eight games, paired mainly with Dmitry Kulikov, and is averaging 15:46 of ice time, though that was skewed by him logging only 9:05 on Tuesday.
“He’s a hard-working guy and he doesn’t shy away from the physical game,” Kulikov said. “I felt like we had a good thing going, the chemistry was good.”
“He’s a huge part,” Pionk added. “One of the biggest parts is he’s a communicator. He’s a really verbal guy and he likes firing the guys up.”
The ex-Ranger has adjusted well to his new team with two goals and three assists in eight games and is second with an average ice time of 23:11. He averaged 21:10 over 73 games with the Rangers last season as he notched six goals and 20 assists.
Pionk said it was “a bit of shock” when the Rangers sent him to Winnipeg along with the 20th overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft — the Jets took Finnish defenseman Ville Heinola, who has jumped right into their lineup — but he is relishing the opportunity for a bigger role.
“I think, as any player, you want more minutes, more ice time,” Pionk said. “Now, it’s about how you take advantage of it, how you use it and you manage it throughout the game. I’ve appreciated it so far.”
Pionk and Bitetto have both worked out in the offseason at Ben Prentiss’ facility in Stamford, Connecticut.
“We had that instant connection when we came here,” Pionk said.