Photo credit:© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
The Leafs aren’t utilizing Tyler Bertuzzi properly – here’s how to fix this
By Alex Hobson14 days ago
Tyler Bertuzzi looked like a new man ahead of Monday night’s game against the New York Islanders. Fresh off a haircut in which he donated the excess hair to a charity that provides children with cancer with wigs, he had a little extra jump to his game and looked like somebody eager to hit the ground running in the second half of the season.
While his six goals and 20 points in 47 games don’t look like anything special, he’s been snakebitten on a level only matched by Ilya Mikheyev in recent years. While he looked somewhat lost in the first couple of weeks of the season, he’s been one of their stronger defensive forwards analytically and he’s third on the team in high-danger chances with 51, sitting behind only John Tavares and Auston Matthews in that department.
Bertuzzi, for as long as he’s been in the league, has earned his money in front of the net. No, he’s not necessarily a physical force who lays thundering hits, but he has the relentless attitude that can rattle a goaltender and the defenceman covering him. All eight of his goals last season came in front of the net, and 15 of his 30 goals in 2021-22 came either in front of the net or in close proximity. Since he’s put on a Leafs jersey, he’s gotten very little, if any, time in front of the net.
Depending on who his linemates are, Bertuzzi often will find himself as the guy in front of the net. But as we all know, the purpose of being a net-front presence only works when you’ve got sustained offensive zone pressure. Where can you find said pressure? On the power play.
I’ve been vocal about my desire for the Leafs to shake up their power-play units for a while. Before this season, you could have made the argument that it was fixing something that wasn’t broken. Their power play did finish second in the league last season and first the year before, after all. Be that as it may, for a team like the Leafs, whose power play is one of their biggest strengths, you can’t cling to that if things aren’t working.
Right now, the Leafs’ power play sits ninth in the league. Not bad, but for a team boasting a player on a 70-goal pace, another on a 100-point pace, and a third on a 90-point pace, their power play should be atop the league. But the core players don’t need to be the ones relied on for power play production – that’s the key factor that hasn’t been taken into consideration once this year.
Kyle Dubas-built teams were always very top-heavy with low event, strong defensive forwards making up the bottom six. The result was players like Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot ending up on the second power play unit, so the decision to load up the top unit made sense. One key variable here – Dubas no longer runs this team.
When Brad Treliving took over as general manager, it was clear that his mission for the offseason was to add “snot” in his words, and the addition of players like Bertuzzi and Max Domi were supposed to beef up the depth scoring in exchange for the sacrifice of said defensive players. So far, it hasn’t worked. The team is hanging onto a wildcard spot and while we’ve seen spurts of offense from those two players, it hasn’t been enough to outweigh a defensive setback.
So here’s the issue – why are the Leafs so insistent on making the core four figure it out every night? Sure, on paper it sounds stupid to call for the demotion of someone like John Tavares, who’s been a power play staple for his entire career. But the Leafs have the assets to beef up two units, so why not use them? Tyler Bertuzzi scored three of his five goals in last year’s playoffs in front of the net for the Boston Bruins. He was the Red Wings’ net-front guy during his entire tenure with them. If he can do it for Boston, why can’t he do it for Toronto?
Sure, a player making $5.5 million should be able to figure some of this out on his own. But, in the same breath, the Leafs need to set him up for success. If you take Matthews away from the top of the circle and put him in front of the net, he’s not going to be a 60-goal-scorer. If you put Marner in Matthews’ spot and make him your prime shooting threat, he’s not going to get assists. Sure, Bertuzzi isn’t Matthews or Marner, but the point stands – take away a guy’s forte and you’re not going to get the best version of him.
Bertuzzi needs to be better, but the Leafs also need to be better at utilizing him. Both things can be true. We saw last season that he can be a second half player, with 16 points through 21 games with the Boston Bruins as well as five goals and ten points in seven playoff games. And, as they’ve learned the hard way, the Leafs’ regular season success ultimately has nothing to do with how they perform in the playoffs. When the postseason hits, the greasy goals become that much more important, and if they keep trying to shove a square peg in a round hole, it’s going to come back to bite them when it matters. Might as well let the guy do what you signed him to do.
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