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Imagining Tyler Bertuzzi as a Maple Leaf

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The Maple Leafs have the same winger problem they had last year.

Florida Panthers v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Elliotte Friedman started it. He first talked on the radio about Maple Leafs’ interest in Tyler Bertuzzi, and then he said this:

7. Don’t know if it still works, but Toronto liked Tyler Bertuzzi this season — moving elsewhere when it became obvious he wasn’t going to be healthy. Barring a major change, Zach Hyman won’t be back with the Maple Leafs, a big loss for them. It’s expected Detroit will be among his pursuers, although the Red Wings won’t be the only ones.

On the radio, where that sort of thing finds an audience ready to hear it, he talked about how Bertuzzi plays “a way” the Maple Leafs are looking for. You’re meant to just know what that way is without it being articulated. The implication there and in this written version is that Zach Hyman plays that way too.

Leafs fans are terrified that Kyle Dubas is going to load up the team with players based on the way they play and not how well they play. It simply doesn’t matter that the evidence has suggested that Dubas is looking for skill from every player he signs, and that his goal is to find peripheral players who are inexpensive relative to the skill they bring.

Dubas is Broke

Dubas is looking for bargains. He keeps loading up the Marlies with players like Nic Petan and Kenny Agostino, and they largely exit to Europe. He keeps signing free agents out of Europe and they work out once in a while — they don’t generally turn into top six stars, though. The skill and drive to be that sort of player in the NHL is usually really obvious, so he’s tried to find remnants in players who used to be great, and sometimes that works.

Finding a bargain is like finding a good goalie, you have to keep trying while you’re judged in hindsight like every NHL shooter that misses the net more than he hits it.

Is Bertuzzi some variety of bargain?

A Hyman Digression

I’m just going to cut and paste because I’m having déjà vu:

Foligno is a genuinely defence-first forward. Zach Hyman is not.

Hyman has achieved these results on an offence-first team and Foligno on a defence-first. That’s going to influence what they do, and how they use their skills, who they play with and what their coach’s expectations are. Foligno may look different on the Leafs. While both players will get you the puck in the right end of the ice, and help you keep it there, they achieve that end differently.

Foligno and Hyman can be interchangeable in position and in overall style, in effect on the Corsi and Expected Goals percentages at the 10,000 foot level, they get there by different paths. ... He can crash the net, forecheck hard and keep Matthews and Marner where they do the most damage — cycling freely in the offensive zone.

The comparison of Nick Foligno to Zach Hyman at the time of the trade was based totally on that amorphous idea of “way”. The theory that Kyle Dubas is going to pay Tyler Bertuzzi millions to join the Leafs to be a disastrous anchor on the Matthews line is based on the belief that Dubas is looking only at “way”, and not skill or cost or any other attribute.

Zach Hyman is gone. He’s going to get nearly $6 million a year, likely on the Oilers, and that is going to make us all mad until some bigger outrage comes along. Would the Leafs benefit by having someone who plays in the same way as Hyman? Yes, likely. Are they going to get that, and his offensive impacts, and his team player, good in the room persona and pay $2.25 million for it? Well, no. The cloning project didn’t work.

Can Bertuzzi check some of the boxes on what Hyman brings and/or the Maple Leafs need?

Bertuzzi

Bertuzzi played for the Guelph Storm in the OHL, and that should make the penny drop. The connections between the Leafs and the Storm run through Barb Underhill, but also through some other hires over the years.

Bertuzzi is not a huge guy, he’s in the over six feet and around 200 lbs territory that is barely above average in the NHL and is about Hyman’s size as well. In the OHL, he wasn’t all that great when young, but in his final year as a man who turned 20 before the season ended, he led the Storm in scoring. He joined Detroit’s AHL team immediately. Hyman needed more years to hit his “man amongst boys” season. He was 23 in the NCAA and playing with Dylan Larkin when he led a team in points.

Bertuzzi, because he was big and aggressive, ended up in that limbo where he rode the elevator to the AHL up and down for years, never looking wholly out of place in the NHL and not cracking the lineup either. He made the jump to the NHL permanently at 23.

His AHL boxcars are more noticeable for his PIM than his points, but his NHL play — on a team that has always been terrible — has been fine with the kind of production you’d love on a third liner. His points per game in the NHL is significantly better than Alexander Kerfoot’s, Ilya Mikheyev’s, and even higher than Nick Foligno’s.

On the Red Wings, Bertuzzi isn’t a third liner. however. His most common linemate over the last three years is Dylan Larkin. He’s so glued to Larkin, he’s got more minutes with him every year than their starting goaltender. You need to try to wash the Larkin out of Bertuzzi’s goal results or you end up like the Red Wings fans who think he’s a star and the Leafs can’t get his rights in trade without a first round pick and their top prospect.

Bertuzzi in context as a scorer:

Top Six Wingers — an assortment

Player Team GP TOI G/60 A1/60 A2/60 Points/60
Player Team GP TOI G/60 A1/60 A2/60 Points/60
Alex Galchenyuk ARI/MIN/PIT/OTT/TOR 165 1860.5 0.61 0.55 0.35 1.52
Andreas Johnsson TOR/N.J 166 2019.69 0.65 0.62 0.45 1.72
Kasperi Kapanen TOR/PIT 187 2461.93 0.8 0.58 0.71 2.1
Mitch Marner TOR 196 2979.9 0.81 1.47 0.44 2.72
Nick Foligno CBJ/TOR 189 2609.3 0.64 0.37 0.41 1.43
Tyler Bertuzzi DET 153 2220.89 0.86 0.51 0.54 1.92
William Nylander TOR 173 2374.82 0.88 0.78 0.45 2.12
Zach Hyman TOR 165 2444.14 0.86 0.52 0.59 1.96
2018-2021, five-on-five Evolving Hockey

With this much ice time in total, I’ll actually look at points. The difference between Hyman and Bertuzzi is tiny. He’s not Nylander, he’s not even Kapanen, but he’s adding value, and scoring his own goals at a rate to make him third on this list behind the best winger overall, and Hyman himself, who we all understand camps at the net mouth and gets garbage goals.

Bertuzzi’s primary assists are low — like Hyman’s and Foligno’s. The complaint there has always been that Hyman can’t make plays, and Auston Matthews should have a better winger. Considering he already has Mr. Assist on the right side, I disregard those complaints. But all three of these guys play in a way that puts them at the netmouth and they either score, or the goalie freezes the puck or gives up a rebound. In that sense, there’s a “way” here that they all share. And I’ll accept that Kyle Dubas is interested in players who play that way because he wanted Filip Hållander in the Kapanen trade.

The same chart format used to compare Hyman to Foligno can show Hyman vs Bertuzzi:

Well, he’s not Foligno, that’s for sure. So much for this “way” really telling you anything about the player. But he is a very watered down Zach Hyman by this way of measuring. I’m going to use the same caveat as before: Hyman did all that on the Leafs while Bertuzzi was playing on the only good line on a Detroit team that had the NHL’s worst CF% over three years.

The tough question to answer is: How much of the Leafs top-10 CF% over that period was Zach Hyman, and can you stand to lose him and gain a player with much poorer abilities in that area?

I don’t believe defensive impacts of wingers show up very accurately or matter very much, and his offensive contributions are decent, and if he really can shoot... am I talking myself into this? I’d be very happy with a player like him on the third line.

Can he shoot?

Wingers and Shooting

Player Team GP TOI iFF/60 ixG/60 FSh% xFSh%
Player Team GP TOI iFF/60 ixG/60 FSh% xFSh%
Alex Galchenyuk ARI/MIN/PIT/OTT/TOR 165 1860.5 9.61 0.73 6.38 7.55
Andreas Johnsson TOR/N.J 166 2019.69 8.91 0.64 7.33 7.21
Kasperi Kapanen TOR/PIT 187 2461.93 10.58 0.72 7.6 6.79
Mitch Marner TOR 196 2979.9 9.73 0.65 8.28 6.72
Nick Foligno CBJ/TOR 189 2609.3 8.23 0.59 7.82 7.17
Tyler Bertuzzi DET 153 2220.89 8.86 0.72 9.76 8.16
William Nylander TOR 173 2374.82 12.15 0.97 7.28 7.98
Zach Hyman TOR 165 2444.14 9.97 0.94 8.62 9.42
2018-2011, five-on-five Evolving Hockey

I’m using Fenwick (all unblocked shots) because it relates directly to Expected Goals. Nylander, Hyman and Kapanen are the high-rate shooters. Bertuzzi is in the basement with Foligno. So that raises the obvious question about his points. Is that luck or opportunism or both?

Expected Fenwick Shooting Percentage (the horror show acronym on the far right) is what a league average shooter should get if randomness is turned off, judging by the type and location of shots. It should not surprise that Bertuzzi’s is very high. He, like Hyman, is a net-front guy, and clearly does a better job of sticking to only those shots than Foligno does. Betuzzi’s actual results (FSh%) is a little above expected, while Hyman’s is below. This is a lot of shots, and a lot of games played, so while randomness can persist and skew this a little, I’m okay saying Bertuzzi is a bit better shot than Hyman or at least more selective. By Expected Goals, Bertuzzi is a good but not great winger. He’s not Nylander, but then who on this list is?

I’ve always liked Bertuzzi a little. The Marlies used to play the Griffins a lot, and he was never the sort of guy to float through an AHL game like he thought it was beneath him. He was a dynamo in the playoffs for them, and he just gave ‘er nonstop on the terrible Red Wings. That part of the way he plays is a thing the Maple Leafs need. If we can separate that out from his aura of masculinist grrr-argh, tough guy who hits, and see the whole player, we might be less upset that Kyle Dubas isn’t magicking up Alex DeBrincat instead of allegedly having interest in Bertuzzi.

Cap hit is part of the whole player, though. Tyler Bertuzzi’s cap hit is the old story of short-term deals and arbitration with some back surgery thrown in to confuse the issue.

Cap Hit

Bertuzzi came off his ELC in 2018, and he signed a two-year deal for an AAV of $1.4 million. His 2017-2018 season was half NHL and some time in the AHL, and his points looked good. The Red Wings were likely very pleased, but they had reasons to think the young player they’d put out with Larkin might be getting a lot of reflected glory in those points stats. That contract was a little light, maybe, but not horribly unfair.

During the following two years he had two 20 goal seasons, and walked into arbitration last offseason likely thinking he had a good case to get a substantial raise. If this all sounds like Connor Brown back in the day, it is a similar tale. Bertuzzi asked for $4.25 million, and the Red Wings offered $3.15 and the award was not a split down the middle, it was $3.5. In the history of arbitration cases, that’s a fairly resounding loss for the player. It would seem the Red Wings successfully argued the reflected glory angle, and fairly so. A lot of his points are due to his ice time, his teammates and his usage, just like everyone’s are. But he’s not fully seated on the passenger side of the car, and it’s unfair to claim he’s not bringing any skill of his own to the game.

The $3.5 million contract has expired, Bertuzzi has arbitration rights again, and his case this season is abjectly terrible. He played nine games this year and had back surgery. His whole argument is his medical records and the past, so he’s not getting a raise to speak of, but the nature of arbitration means he’s not getting less than $3.5 million unless he agrees to that outside the arbitration system. He is, right now, an effective UFA. If he goes to arbitration or even just accepts his Qualifying Offer, which is $3.5 million, he’s a UFA next summer. Trading for his rights now gives a team one chance to buy some UFA years at a decent price and lock him up for his prime, but not his post prime, like a Hyman signing will involve.

Dubas is broke, though, and no one wants to see him pay a decent price for anyone of any type. They want dollar store prices for designer goods, not decent knock offs at decent knock-off prices.

You can’t have the designer goods. The Leafs can’t get a player better and younger than Bertuzzi for less than he’ll command. You have to grow those yourself and have them on ELCs in the NHL already. Bertuzzi is going to sign for something between Hyman’s old deal and his new one, in the three to four million range, and getting him now when he’s got a blank season to his credit is the only way to make that deal have a slight discount.

Top Six or Top Nine?

So, let’s say for the sake of argument that the Leafs’ interest in Bertuzzi is still simmering. Is he being considered for the top six or for the third line? Much like when that question was asked about the rental Foligno, the answer is likely he’d be tried in both places.

Maybe Dubas can see a path to acquiring a winger better than a good fake at top six quality. Maybe he can spend $6 million on Timor Meier or Alex DeBrincat or Filip Forsberg. But I don’t like to think about what that would do to the defence, goaltending and bottom six quality on the team. The two top forward pairs are set, and the additions, just like last offseason, are going to be cheaper, complementary left wings who can add some offence. They’re going to look like players you’d be happy to have on the third line.

If the very idea of Bertuzzi makes you cringe, I get that. But there’s only so much budget to go around for wingers, and Mitch Marner, William Nylander and the Six Million Dollar Man can’t all play on the same team. Connor Brown wasn’t quite enough, Kasperi Kapanen didn’t bring it in the playoffs, Andreas Johnsson really didn’t bring it in the playoffs, and Zach Hyman’s bargain years are over.

On that cheery note, I’m not sure Bertuzzi is enough better than Brown to make him the answer after all the others have been discarded, but he’s got more offence. Maybe the “way” he plays is the value added onto a better offensive player than can be had at his price.

On Saturday, David Pagnotta posted this:

[T]he Detroit Red Wings are willing to listen to offers for left wing Tyler Bertuzzi.

I don’t believe a deal is imminent with any club at the moment, but Detroit took calls last off-season and some teams inquired about his availability during the year. Those talks appear to have resumed.

Some teams to keep an eye on include the Flyers, Kings, Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

The reality is, the Leafs might genuinely lack the asset surplus to trade for Bertuzzi’s rights, and might need to go right back to the UFA market to try to find the wingers they need. But I don’t think fears that Dubas is looking only at “way” and not at skill are valid, but as always:

We’ll see where this goes.