Tyler Bertuzzi is hellbent on bringing the Red Wings back to playoff contention, and his recent play has shown that he can be the same difference maker in the NHL that he was in Grand Rapids.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Tyler Bertuzzi scored four goals in the Red Wings’ 2021-22 season opener against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, it was as though he was shooting a flare with dramatic flair to signal his arrival as a legitimate star.
If some critics dismissed the 26-year-old’s performance as a one-night wonder, Bertuzzi soon proved that he is no flash in the pan. After Detroit’s first 10 games, Bertuzzi had already tallied nine goals and six assists.
“Bert’s a hell of a player,” Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill said in post-game comments after Bertuzzi had two goals and two assists to rally Detroit to a 4-3 overtime win in Buffalo last Nov. 6. “He’s a hell of a competitor. He’s a great person, but he’s a hell of a player. And I don’t know if he gets his due all the time for as good a player as he is.”
Blashill knows what Griffins fans know. When the chips are down, few players are better at producing than Bertuzzi.
During his three-plus seasons in Grand Rapids, Bertuzzi recorded 23 goals and 16 assists in 42 playoff games. Blashill was coaching the Griffins during the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs when the rookie Bertuzzi potted seven goals in his first 14 postseason games, including four game-winning tallies.
“I remember coming into my first playoff and Blash was the coach,” Bertuzzi said. “I think that playoff run was big for my career. Just getting that early playoff experience was helpful in terms of playing pro hockey.”
Bertuzzi, of course, was only getting started. After tallying seven more goals in just nine games before the Griffins’ second-round exit in 2015-16, he took home the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs when the Griffins won their second championship in five years.
“Winning a Calder Cup was huge for my development,” said Bertuzzi, who had nine goals and 10 assists in 19 playoff games that year. “In the playoffs, you’ve got to be able to elevate your game. You learn to battle every night and I think it ultimately helps your play.”
The current season has seen Bertuzzi elevate his game to a new level. After a great start, he went 11 games without a goal before he started possibly the hottest streak of his NHL career. In 13 contests from Dec. 16 to Jan. 22, Bertuzzi scored 10 goals while adding eight assists as the Red Wings found themselves on a winning track halfway into the season.
As he often showed during his time in Grand Rapids, Bertuzzi seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time – and that’s not something that happens by accident. Call it good hockey sense or the good fortune that results from putting himself in the best position to score, he excels by creating the kind of chances that often result in points.
“I pride myself in going to the net and trying to create space for myself,” he said. “I’m always trying to go to the net, so I’ll score those types of goals. But I’m trying to expand my goal-scoring ability by trying to shoot from everywhere while still continuing to go to the net.”
Hockey observers often say that the puck follows certain players around the ice, but usually, it’s the other way around. Smart players instinctively put themselves into areas of the ice where the puck finds them, and they are able to create those high-quality scoring chances.
In terms of hockey sense, Bertuzzi’s talent is off the charts.
Like Wayne Gretzky famously observed, the way to become a difference maker is in skating to where the puck is going to be rather than where it has been. When you can anticipate the action, you are able to produce more points.
On Jan. 9 this season, Bertuzzi saw the puck squirt toward him on the far side of the net after defenseman Marc Staal tried a wrap-around chance. Without hesitation, Bertuzzi buried the shot into the open net behind the Anaheim Ducks goaltender.
“A lot of the pucks are going to go toward the net, so that’s where I like to go,” Bertuzzi said. “When you go to the net, you’ll often get rewarded, so I’ll continue to do that. It’s finding those little spots on the ice where you think the puck is going to go and trying to catch the goalie as open as possible.”
Five days earlier, Bertuzzi skated from behind the goal, then backhanded the puck toward the net. The shot surprised the unsuspecting San Jose netminder, allowing the puck to deflect off the goalie’s stick into the open cage.
Bertuzzi knows that today’s goalies are so skilled, it’s a good idea to shoot when they least expect it. Catch them napping or catch them when their guard is down and your chances of getting the puck past them will improve. Create havoc whenever possible to distract them or to catch them out of position.
On Jan. 15, the Red Wings converted on the power play after tic-tac-toe puck movement allowed Bertuzzi to bury a rebound, giving Detroit the first goal in a 4-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres at Little Caesars Arena. If you blinked, you might have missed his shot.
The fact is that the puck never seems to be on Bertuzzi’s stick for long. He prefers a quick release rather than waiting for the perfect shot and possibly telegraphing his actions. “You want to get your shot off as quick as possible so they can’t get set in their position, that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
Most of Bertuzzi’s points come from those spots on the ice that are described as the “hard areas,” down low and close to the net where players have to fight for every inch. In another recent game, Bertuzzi was battling along the boards before he managed to free the puck to Robby Fabbri, who found Dylan Larkin coming off the bench and streaking toward the net.
“I was trying to keep working hard down low, hold onto the puck, and make a smart play,” Bertuzzi said. “Obviously ‘Fab’ made a good play to find Dylan in the slot.”
Bertuzzi and Larkin have been on the Red Wings’ top line for most of the season, having found chemistry in recent years. “Me and Dylan have always had a pretty good connection on the ice and we seem to draw off each other,” he said of his relationship with the Red Wings’ captain.
Larkin, meanwhile, contends that Bertuzzi doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. “I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Larkin told the media earlier this season. “When he’s been on the ice with us, he battles. He battles for his guys, his teammates, and he’s one of my best friends. It’s great to see his confidence just take off.”
Before the start of the season, there was some question of who would fill the other spot on the Larkin-Bertuzzi line. Lucas Raymond, now a candidate for this season’s Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie alongside teammate Moritz Seider, quickly filled the role.
“Raymond has been awesome for us,” Bertuzzi said. “He brings another ability to score from anywhere. If we can get him the puck and he can create some space, we know we’ll get our chances.”
It didn’t take long for the Red Wings to recognize that they had something extra special in the player that general manager Steve Yzerman had decided to take with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
“Even during our summer skates, Dylan and I were talking and Raymond looked really good,” Bertuzzi said. “Obviously you can’t judge him on that alone, but he continued to look good during the preseason and he managed to transition right into the regular season.
“He’s made a good name for himself and he’s been really good for us this year.”
Larkin and defenseman Danny DeKeyser are the only players who remain from Bertuzzi’s first substantial season (2017-18) in Detroit, which Bertuzzi called “crazy,” but which is evidence of the wholesale changes that the Red Wings needed to make to regain their reputation as a perennial Cup contender.
Bertuzzi said the team as a whole is building confidence.
“We’ve made positive steps this year,” he said. “We’re a very young team with a few older guys who are really good in the locker room and are key pieces on the ice. I think everyone is jelling together great, but we need to keep improving and keep getting wins.”
Although he missed most of last season with a back injury, Bertuzzi said he could see signs that the team was already beginning to turn the corner back to respectability.
“You could see toward the end of last season that the team was playing with more confidence and guys were playing good hockey,” he said. “I think it transitioned into this year and we added some more pieces to the team. I think we’re going pretty good now.”
While the addition of rookies Raymond and Seider have provided a boost of youth and energy this season, the past couple of years have seen the Red Wings add other critical pieces like Vladislav Namestnikov, Pius Suter, and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
“Everything is starting to come together,” Bertuzzi said. “Everyone is playing really well and we all are playing together as one unit.”
Finally, the Red Wings feel they can battle any team on any given night. “That’s what we’re looking for every night. We want to be competitive,” Bertuzzi said. “Obviously you try to win every night, but it’s important to be able to stay in the game and give yourself a chance every night.”
Bertuzzi thinks Blashill has become a better coach since coming to Detroit after winning the 2013 Calder Cup in Grand Rapids. He feels the coaching staff does a good job of getting the Red Wings ready to win every night.
“Whether you’re a hockey player or a coach, you learn through the years and through your experiences,” he said. “We’ve been growing together as a team, and you learn from one season and then move on to the next. He’s a better coach today, for sure.”
Bertuzzi looks forward to seeing the Red Wings return to the postseason, where they have been missing since the 2015-16 season. “That’s our goal. We want to be in the mix and fight for a playoff spot. That’s our goal now and that will be our goal next year and for years to come.”
As far as Bertuzzi is concerned, it’s only a matter of time, a moment that he expects will come sooner than later.
“We know we’re heading in the right direction,” Bertuzzi said. “We feel we have a lot of key pieces now. With time and more players, we’ll get to where we need to be.”