Leafs' Tyler Bertuzzi isn't delivering 'snot' or scoring punch that was promised

The Maple Leafs' biggest offseason add, projected to bring snarl to a club needing pushback, has failed to deliver in the early goings of the season.

Tyler Bertuzzi was considered to be the archetype of what previous iterations of the Toronto Maple Leafs were sorely missing, the crown jewel of a polarizing first offseason for new general manager Brad Treliving.

Bertuzzi carved out a reputation as a 30-goal player while providing the requisite toughness — or "snot," as Treliving became fond of — to augment a talented Maple Leafs team that never lived up to the sum of their parts during the playoffs.

One month into the season, Bertuzzi hasn’t delivered on either promise after signing a one-year, $5.5 million deal this offseason. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe appeared to be fed up with the 28-year-old during Thursday’s overtime loss to the Boston Bruins, demoting him to the fourth line, paired alongside Pontus Holmberg and Ryan Reaves during the third period.

“He just needs to simplify his game,” Keefe said of Bertuzzi post-game via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “Today we had a very simple plan, and he failed to execute that, so other guys had to take his place.”

Tyler Bertuzzi has not come as advertised for the Maple Leafs amid a sluggish start. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Tyler Bertuzzi has not come as advertised for the Maple Leafs amid a sluggish start. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Bertuzzi recorded three shots at 5-on-5, but that has more to do with John Tavares and William Nylander’s superior playmaking than his own willingness to seek optimal scoring chances. Nylander and Tavares have been the Maple Leafs’ best players this season — though if you want to vouch for Auston Matthews, we won’t argue strongly — but Bertuzzi hampered the efficacy of his two star linemates as the trio posted a woeful 19.4% share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 and were on the ice for Pavel Zacha’s opening goal, the result of several Maple Leafs mistakes.

John Klingberg was primarily responsible as he stood in no man’s land and failed to communicate to Tavares that Zacha was crashing net-front, but Bertuzzi is nowhere in the frame, either.

Keefe’s lineup shuffle generally worked, at least as it related to the Tavares-Nylander combination. Matthew Knies took Bertuzzi’s place and the new line posted a 92% share of the expected goals at 5-on-5, generating five shots, surrendering none and breathing life into a Maple Leafs’ comeback attempt. Bertuzzi was a non-factor altogether on the fourth line.

With two goals and three points in 10 games, pacing towards a 25-point season if he played all 82 games, this is not what the Maple Leafs signed up for from the gritty winger. In zero-sum terms, Bertuzzi was expected to replace Michael Bunting, a player who could augment Matthews and Mitch Marner’s offense with excellent puck retrieval skills. He also served as one of the NHL’s elite at drawing penalties despite a penchant for undisciplined play at inopportune moments.

Throughout training camp and through the opening three games, Bertuzzi was afforded the first look on the Matthews-Marner line, but he failed to formulate any real chemistry with Toronto’s franchise players and was replaced by the steady Calle Jarnkrok, who is more consistent with less upside.

That inability to make things click was one of the primary observations of training camp: Matthews, Nylander and Marner in some order were the team’s best players; Bertuzzi had a ton of good looks but couldn’t convert, both in practice and game scenarios.

As for the purported toughness he was supposed to add? Bertuzzi was caught chuckling on the bench as Bruins captain Brad Marchand got into a verbal spat with Reaves. Marchand collided with Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren towards the end of the first period, causing the Swede to crash into the boards awkwardly and leave the game, with Keefe later revealing that he would be out for an extended period of time. Marchand wasn’t penalized, even though it appeared that he pulled a classic "can opener" — a dirty play where a player pulls their opponent’s leg back from behind.

We’re not necessarily advocating for senseless on-ice violence, but it is somewhat baffling that no one from the Maple Leafs bench, Reaves’ comments notwithstanding, stepped up to Marchand. What’s the point of emphasizing toughness over skill if they’re just buzzwords meant to placate a 24-hour news cycle in a hockey-mad market? How are fans supposed to believe that this iteration of the team is markedly different from the previous versions?

Bertuzzi, thus far, isn’t replicating Bunting’s toughness or secondary scoring punch, or an ability to agitate his opponents. At the risk of playing pop psychologist, it looks like he’s simply here for the ride.

It’s a one-year gamble on Bertuzzi, so the Maple Leafs can eventually cut ties with him if he fails to live up to his end of the bargain — and through the early stages of the year, Bertuzzi has not earned a passing grade.

Bertuzzi can’t be evaluated in a vacuum necessarily either, as it’s arguably the most pivotal season of the Maple Leafs’ timeline with an imminent Nylander extension to work through and the incremental postseason failures morphing into a Sisyphean hurdle.

Bertuzzi was asked to deliver secondary scoring punch, or at the very least, work as a capable puck retrieval specialist for Toronto’s Core Four, while bringing the requisite "snot" and toughness Treliving was obsessed with during this summer’s free agency period. He has done neither and the Maple Leafs simply need more from their new top-line winger as he’s producing bottom-tier results.

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