Whatever works for Tyler Bertuzzi, Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews gladly will get behind it.
The tape-free stick. The hair. The missing tooth. The skate tongues that stick out.
“He’s got hilarious style,” Matthews said after practice at the Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday. “Tongues out. The flow all over the place. The knob, the tape on the blade or the non-tape on the blade … Everybody is looking at the stick like: ‘What’s going on?’ He’s got one strip of camo tape on the top for his butt end, so really nothing, and then just a strip on the blade. There’s nothing on the bottom, nothing on the top.
“What he’s got going on there is something I’ve never seen before. It’s pretty interesting to see that he can actually play hockey with what he’s working with.”
There’s a little more to what has been making Bertuzzi stand out as the days of training camp and the pre-season pass by slower than Jason Allison on a breakaway. In fact, Bertuzzi began catching the eyes of his new Toronto teammates before the club hit the ice last week on the first day of camp.
When the Leafs signed Bertuzzi to a one-year, $5.5 million US contract on July 2, they figured they had found the right player to skate alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top line. Once Bertuzzi arrived in Toronto for the informal scrimmages earlier this month, he started to put some weight behind that notion.
“Way more skilled than I thought, more talent than I thought,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “He competes and he plays hard around the net and he has that style of play that we all know him for in terms of being strong on the puck, good hands, gritty.
“His passing ability and his hockey sense and his vision was surprising (in those scrimmages). He was on the ice with Auston and Mitch and I’m always surprised when people can keep up or play at their level. Every day that went by, he would do something. He has a great backhand. From in tight, he’s able to put it upstairs really quick. He has these little things to his game that I never knew about or really appreciated.”
For coach Sheldon Keefe, the potential benefits of adding Bertuzzi to the top line became clear when he reviewed video of Bertuzzi’s time with the Boston Bruins last season. Traded to Boston from the Detroit Red Wings in March, Bertuzzi had 16 points in 21 games before shining in the playoffs, with 10 points in the first round against Florida to tie Brad Marchand for the Bruins lead.
“He seemed to be finding himself alongside either Marchand or (David) Pastrnak pretty consistently,” Keefe said. “Anytime he was moved away from there, he seemed to find his way back.
“That’s what we think we have, is a guy who is going to pair well with any of our players that we put him with, but someone the best guys want to play with. He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to make plays.”
Meshing with players as talented as Matthews and Marner isn’t something that comes automatically. Skill is key, of course, but there’s some consistent work required, and Michael Bunting and Zach Hyman were two that made the fit seamlessly. Nick Ritchie, last season, failed miserably.
For Bertuzzi, as much as it is about creating space for the pair, it’s about finding it, as well. He spoke last week of Marner’s creativity and having his stick on the ice at all times, and on Wednesday touched on one of Matthews’ many attributes.
“He holds on to the puck, and he just lugs it and he’s good with spinning off checks and getting to open spots for good scoring opportunities,” Bertuzzi said. “I just need to give those guys some room and let them do their thing.”
As for that tape job on his stick, or lack thereof, Bertuzzi has been hearing about it from his new teammates.
“Yeah, they’ve given me some (crap),” Bertuzzi said. “But I’m sticking with it. It has been a couple of years now. Don’t like taping sticks, so it’s easy.”