Anthony Bitetto doesn’t have any inside knowledge of when the 2020-21 NHL season will start. The only thing he knows about next season is that whenever it does start, he’ll be wearing the jersey of his favorite team growing up, the Rangers.
"You put a Ranger jersey on, as a New Yorker, that means something,’’ Bitetto, an Island Park native, said in a telephone interview Tuesday with Newsday. "The hashtag, #playlikenewyorker, that should be easy for me. I grew up a New Yorker. I don’t think I’ll be more ‘all-in’ on a team than I will be with the Rangers. This is an opportunity I never had.
"I mean, I’m getting dressed at the practice rink and it’s still surreal that I’m putting on Rangers gear.’’
The entire Bitetto family were Ranger fans, he said.
"We’d go to games, and everything in the house was Rangers.’’
Now, after playing 51 games last season with the Winnipeg Jets, Bitetto, 30, signed a two-year deal worth $1.475 million, according to CapFriendly, on Oct. 9, the first day of free agency.
With Jacob Trouba, newly re-signed Tony DeAngelo, fellow Long Islander Adam Fox and rugged Ryan Lindgren and free-agent addition Jack Johnson the top five on defense, Bitetto will likely be competing with Brendan Smith, Libor Hajek and perhaps K’Andre Miller to be the sixth or seventh defenseman.
"I’ve always been a person not to just be handed something,’’ he said. "I think it’s a role that has to be earned, and that’s the best part about this game: To compete with your teammates to make each other better... I’ve been around quite a bit now, where you learn how to be a leader, or how to be an older guy. With a young team, I think this is a great fit for me to come in and be that person; be a guy in the locker room [for] when guys need help with stuff.’’
Bitetto, a 6-1, 210-pound, lefthanded shot, wasn’t really thinking about the NHL when he was playing junior hockey for the New York Apple Core organization, out of Long Beach. He was hoping to play in college at some level — not necessarily Division I — and planning on becoming an electrician.
But when he was 18, he was "traded’’ to Indianapolis of the USHL. After talking it over with his parents, he went to Indianapolis, where his coach was Jeff Blashill — currently the coach of the Detroit Red Wings — and his defense partner was Torey Krug, who just signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the St. Louis Blues. The team won the USHL championship that season, and a year later Bitetto committed to play college hockey at Northeastern. Nashville took him in the sixth round of the 2010 NHL draft.
Two years later, Bitetto turned pro. He played three seasons in the minor leagues before making it to the NHL in 2015, and he’s played 183 NHL games in the league for Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg.
He joined the Rangers because, well, when they called, how could he not? But also, he said he believes the Rangers have a chance to challenge for a Stanley Cup in the near future, with their core of young talent and in-their-prime stars Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Bitetto, who idolized Brian Leetch, can’t have the No. 2 he prefers because, of course, that number is retired. Instead, Bitetto will wear 22, last worn by Kevin Shattenkirk. There’s also the question of whether he’ll be called Anthony or Tony in the Rangers locker room, with DeAngelo already there.
"Tony D and Tony B,’’ he said with a laugh. "I’ve already spoken to him about it.’’