Finding the perfect fit for Tyler Bertuzzi on the Maple Leafs
Photo credit:Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
By Jon Steitzer2 months ago
Let’s generously say that the significant news part of the summer has passed for the NHL. There will be signings, arbitrations, and the Red Wings proved that there will still be trades as well, but we can no longer plan our lives around the NHL news cycle. There also needs to be some acknowledge that while change is likely still coming for the Maple Leafs roster, most of the players listed on it today will be the players arriving in training camp in September. Today’s post is in the spirit of that and it’s time to determine where the best fit is for Tyler Bertuzzi on the Leafs.
There is a very quick answer when it comes to where Bertuzzi fits. As the Michael Bunting replacement (or dare I say upgrade) it seems likely that he is on track to slot in next to Auston Matthews and allow the top line to perform the similar function with the potential to create more offense. With Bertuzzi likely to be next to Matthews and Marner, and the fact that in all likelihood they will most frequently be on the ice with top four defencemen as support to the line, Toronto can put a player who is a little less than capable defensively on that unit. Really the only other defensively minded options within the Leafs top nine are probably Knies and Jarnkrok, and at least one of them will likely need to support the Tavares line. As a left shot it is far more likely to see Bertuzzi on the left side than the right, although he has lined up on both sides throughout his career. Even though the Leafs could conceivably go with two new wingers for Auston Matthews, it bet on Marner reprising his role on Matthews’ right for most of the season, especially now that there is another potential finisher for him to work with.
At 6’1, Bertuzzi isn’t small, but he doesn’t necessarily add size to the top line. If the goal is to have someone who will jump into the fray for Auston and Mitch, I have no doubt that Bertuzzi will represent his linemates well in a shoving match, but with just five fighting majors throughout his seven years in the NHL that isn’t really happening here or it’s at least going to happen with the same frequency that Michael Bunting did it. This isn’t a slight on Bertuzzi nor is it advocating for Ryan Reaves on the top line, it’s just tempering some expectations around getting bigger and meaner.
Where Bertuzzi with Matthews seems to make a lot of sense, Bertuzzi with Tavares is a bit more of a stretch. Both Tavares and Bertuzzi tend to gravitate towards the front of the opposition’s net and while Bertuzzi will have puck retrieval as part of his job outline more so than Tavares, it starts steering the Leafs towards predictable offense and that has been the team’s undoing in the previous years. There is also a lot of pressure being put on the defensive pairings and the third linemate to handle their own zone coverage and if Nylander or Domi are the second winger on that line, own zone coverage would be a lot like the Leafs playing shorthanded.
The final option is the third line with centre TBD. Centre TBD is potentially Domi, Jarnkrok, or Kampf at this point. The Leafs absolutely need to lean into the idea of going three lines deep on offence and if that’s the case players like Domi, Nylander, and Bertuzzi are most likely the ticket to making that line viable. If that happens or not comes down to how comfortable the Leafs are with starting the year with Matthew Knies in the top six.
All of that is the narrative around where Bertuzzi “could” play, it’s also important to look at where Bertuzzi has played over the past couple of seasons.
During his rental time in Boston, Bertuzzi’s two most frequent linemates were Pavel Zacha and David Pastrnak. Pastrnak was frequently with Bertuzzi throughout his time in Boston, while Zacha saw an increase during the playoffs as Bertuzzi cycled through having Bergeron, Krecji, and Zacha as his centres, and Coyle was frequently with him in the regular season. Perhaps the takeaway from Bertuzzi’s limited time in Boston is that he was used to fill out lines throughout the top nine as Boston learned what worked best. That potentially is the case for Bertuzzi in Toronto as well. During the regular season Bertuzzi’s best numbers came with Coyle followed by Zacha and Pastrnak. When it came to the playoffs, Zacha was best for Bertuzzi as well with Coyle also delivering results in more limited usage. It’s also important to note that those exciting output numbers from Bertuzzi were largely powerplay driven, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is important to note that 5v5 was a bit more of a struggle for Bertuzzi in the playoffs.
Going back to what Bertuzzi did in Detroit last season, his deployment was very much in line with what is expected for him in Toronto. Bertuzzi was almost exclusively on the top line with Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond. Of Bertuzzi’s limited season, two thirds of his time was spent on that top line. Larkin and Raymond both had much better goals for percentages when away from Bertuzzi but had improved Corsi for percentages with Bertuzzi.
In Bertuzzi’s career year of 2021-22, he was once again most frequently with Larkin and Raymond. His numbers were a lot like his underlying numbers in 2022-23 and don’t particularly standout, but it’s also important to remember that Detroit is not a team that was going to lend itself to stellar numbers for it’s top line. Larkin, Raymond, and Bertuzzi drew top competition from teams that were better than theirs and it shows. It’s more about where and who Bertuzzi was playing with.
With Larkin, Bertuzzi was frequently playing with a center with speed to burn. He’s certainly a top center on most top units in the NHL and comparatively did a lot of heavy lifting for Raymond who is still young and figuring stuff out. Raymond isn’t speedy and as you can see from the chart is still figuring out what to do when he doesn’t have the puck. He is offensively capable but is far more of a powerplay guy than a 5v5 guy in that regard. If there is someone on the Leafs who compares to Raymond it is most likely Max Domi, but Domi’s career so far makes him the superior option. I wouldn’t say that anyone should be really trying to identify a Raymond type player for Bertuzzi anyway and upgrading to someone like Marner is probably ideal. Larkin maybe doesn’t have a comparable on the Leafs, but between Toronto’s top two centers, Matthews looks like the more obvious fit than Tavares.
Based on the shorter-term Bruins comparisons, William Nylander is probably the closest comparable on the roster to a David Pastrnak type player. (Please note that I said “type player.” While Matthews and Marner are the closest in overall talent to Pastrnak, Nylander’s style of play is what we are looking at.) The other forwards that Bertuzzi saw a fair amount of time with were Zacha and Coyle and that makes me wonder if he could find chemistry with a hard-working jack of all trades player like Calle Jarnkrok as well.
From a 5v5 perspective I’d say the best potential fits for Bertuzzi are that obvious spot on the Matthews line with Marner, and the secondary option to explore would be a potential line of Bertuzzi, Jarnkrok, and Nylander, assuming that Jarnkrok can adapt to center fulltime and Nylander is still a Leaf. Both potentially big ifs at this point.
Additionally, Bertuzzi is in Toronto to dine out on the powerplay and it’s just a matter of which unit is the better fit. Bertuzzi will certainly be a net presence and can also help the Leafs on dump-ins when they struggle to enter the zone against stronger bluelines. Whether that makes him a fit for the top unit or the secondary one is debatable, but I’d wager that Matthews, Marner, and Tavares are still staples of the top unit and will be handed either Klingberg or Rielly as their defenseman. Given that Domi, Nylander, and Knies are likely destined for the second unit to spread the skill around, it seems there is a spot with Matthews that is there for the taking.
While it is still a long time until training camp and it still isn’t determined whether the Nylander rumours are valid or simply something we do to pass the time, there may be reason to reassess what works best for Bertuzzi going forward. For now, it looks like the guy who is paid to be the top line left wing will in fact be the top line left wing.
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