Niyo: There's more than meets the eye with underrated Tyler Bertuzzi

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates his second-period goal with Luke Glendening on Wedesday night.

Detroit — First impressions can be fleeting. But with Tyler Bertuzzi, the reminders are frequent.

That’s why Niklas Kronwall, the Red Wings’ veteran defenseman, laughs before answering what he thought of Bertuzzi the first time he showed up for an informal team workout as a Red Wings prospect five years ago.  

"We see Bert coming in with his long hair, tape everywhere — it was something different, that's for sure," Kronwall said, smiling, as Bertuzzi — and his well-maintained mullet — stood nearby waiting to meet with the media following his two-goal night in a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues at Little Caesars Arena.

"But as soon as we saw him play,” Kronwall continued, “you just knew …”

And wouldn’t you know it? Now that the rebuilding Wings finally are trying something different – with an influx of youth in the lineup on a nightly basis — everyone’s starting to see there’s more to “Little Bert,” the nephew of former Red Wings Todd Bertuzzi, than meets the eye.

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Wednesday’s starring role might’ve been an extreme example, with Bertuzzi netting the Wings’ last two goals, including the game-winner with 6:53 left after Detroit blew a 3-0 lead. But the way in which he stood out, by diving into the play and winning countless 1-on-1 battles, was exactly what his coaches and teammates have come to expect — and appreciate.

“I love him as a player,” head coach Jeff Blashill said. “He competes. Mark Howe said to me, ‘He’s one of those guys who doesn’t just work, he competes. He finds ways to win pucks. He gets stick on puck. We talk about hounding in the (offensive) zone and hounding on the forecheck, and that’s what he does. And he’s really good around the net.”

Wednesday, he was all of those things on the night’s most critical shift, as the struggling Blues — an underachieving team that got its coach fired 20 games into the season — had seized momentum and seemed poise to steal a game, too.

But after a faceoff win, the pivotal play started with rookie defenseman Dennis Cholowski showing some poise just inside the blue line, spinning away from the Blues’ Robert Thomas before regrouping at the top of the circle and feeding Bertuzzi back at the point.

Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates his third-period goal with teammates on Wednesday night.

He threw a shot at the net — one that linemate Luke Glendening nearly tipped in — and then threw his body at Thomas in the corner as the St. Louis winger tried to corral the loose puck and clear the zone. Bertuzzi wouldn’t let him, though, and after he flipped a pass out from behind the net, he circled around the other side of the crease, where a deflected shot from rookie Michael Rasmussen found him staring at a wide-open net.

From there, all that was left to do was slam it home and then celebrate along with the Red Wings fans, who’ve been waiting for another homegrown hero like this — all grit and gap-tooth grins -- for a while. And it was only fitting that Bertuzzi potted a pair on the same night the team handed out his bobblehead to the first 7,5000 fans at the LCA.

The team posted a spoof promotional video earlier in the day that featured Bertuzzi — with help from Anthony Mantha — “fixing” the souvenirs by removing a front tooth to make a more authentic smile. And by day’s end, he was flashing it for real when asked if he had one of his uncle’s bobbleheads.

“No,” he laughed. “I’ll give him mine, though.”

What he gives the Red Wings is exactly what they hoped he would when they drafted him in the second round of the 2013 NHL entry draft. That bonus pick – acquired from San Jose when the Wings moved down two spots to select Mantha at No. 20 overall — was widely panned as Bertuzzi was listed 207th among North American skaters in the final Central Scouting Bureau rankings.

But he quickly proved himself as a playoff monster in the OHL and AHL, and by the time the trade deadline rolled around last March, Bertuzzi was itching for a bigger role in Detroit. One that general manager Ken Holland provided when he traded Tomas Tatar to Las Vegas for a healthy package of draft picks.

“We knew when we were trading Tats, we were trading a good player,” Blashill said. “But we also felt like we had a guy in Bert that if he got similar minutes he could produce to a similar level and bring certain elements to the team. I think Tyler’s done an excellent job with that.”

The numbers back it up. In 45 games since the trade, Bertuzzi now has 13 goals and 28 points. That kind of production puts him on pace for 24 goals and 51 points over a full 82-game schedule, and that’d be slightly above what Tatar, who is playing well for Montreal this fall after another trade in the offseason, averaged the last four seasons. At barely one-quarter of the cost, too, as the 23-year-old Bertuzzi carries a $1.4 million cap hit on the two-year deal he signed in June.

“For me, he’s a winning hockey player,” Blashill said. “It’s easy to judge guys on stats, but some guys score and lose a lot. Some guys produce enough and win tons. To me, he’s a winning hockey player. He does all the little things it takes to win. He plays on the right side of the puck, he plays good ‘D’, he blocks shots, he wins stick battles. I mean, the game still comes down to winning 1-on-1 battles and he does that all the time. I’m a big fan of his.”

His veteran teammates are as well, and while Bertuzzi seemed to fit in just fine on a top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist last spring, Blashill likes what he sees lately with a checking line of Glendening, Bertuzzi and Rasmussen. All three were around the net on the winning goal Wednesday, and that’s no accident, particularly in Bertuzzi’s case.

“Well, he just goes,” said Thomas Vanek, who netted the Wings' first goal Wednesday night. “I mean, he’s got a ton of energy. And he’s not afraid to go in front of the net, or go in the corner. And he finds the puck. I think a lot of his goals are when he finds that puck pretty quickly and puts it in the net.”

For Bertuzzi, that’s nothing new, really.

“I’m just going to the net, trying to find an opening,” he said. “I think I’ve been like that my whole life. But as you go up in leagues, it’s harder maybe to toe-drag or dangle. So I’ve adapted to just play hard, go to the net and that’s where a lot of goals are created.”

Reputations, too. And as first impressions give way to more lasting ones for a young core of players in Detroit, Bertuzzi seems to be in the right place at the right time.