For the teams that are not in the playoffs, the offseason is now in full swing. Planning for the 2022-23 season has already begun, and general managers (GM) from all 32 teams surely have a gauge on what kind of moves their organizations may or may not be able to pull off. While some teams don’t need to mess with their formula too much, others may be looking to switch things up in a big way, sending a message to their team that the status quo is no longer good enough.
One team in the latter category seems to be the Detroit Red Wings. After letting go of long-time head coach Jeff Blashill on the first day of the offseason, GM Steve Yzerman made it known while addressing the media that his team’s performance this season was not good enough. Whether it’s through trades, free agency, or even internal competition, it seems likely that change is coming to “Hockeytown”, and in a big way.
Another team that could feasibly look to shake things up is the Toronto Maple Leafs. After suffering their sixth-straight opening series loss (including their qualifying round loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020), the Maple Leafs still remain as the only Canadian franchise without a playoff series victory in the salary cap era. While they gave the back-to-back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning all they could handle in the first round, they still came up short. GM Kyle Dubas’s top priority this offseason will be finding the missing piece that will get them past the first round for the first time since 2004.
As luck would have it, both the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs have something that the other needs. While they are Atlantic Division and Original Six rivals, both organizations could seize the opportunity to help each other out.
Maple Leafs Need Skill & Grit
It’s no secret that the Maple Leafs don’t really have a player that is the proverbial “pain in the butt” to play against. While they have loads of skill spread throughout their lineup, their most physical forward this season was 14-year veteran Wayne Simmonds. In his prime, he was the exact type of player Toronto needs today, but those years are long gone, and he has recorded just 25 points through 110 games with the Maple Leafs. What the Leafs need today is a player that can play in their top six, be a thorn in the opposition’s side, and produce at a level that is befitting of that top six ice-time.
Enter Tyler Bertuzzi.
The Maple Leafs have been linked to Bertuzzi going back to the 2021 offseason. When they lost Zach Hyman to the Edmonton Oilers in free agency, Dubas is rumored to have investigated the possibility of acquiring Bertuzzi from the Red Wings. For various reasons, including the player’s unvaccinated status and the travel limitations that come along with it, a deal was never consummated. A year later, the Maple Leafs find themselves still in need of a player like Bertuzzi, and while the vaccine mandate is still in place, there continues to be whispers that things may change on that front.
In a bubble, adding Bertuzzi makes a lot of sense for the Maple Leafs. He is coming off of a career season that saw him produce 30 goals and 62 points – both career highs – through 68 games. He plays a scrappy game that is tailor-made for the playoffs (he was the playoff MVP of the American Hockey League during the Grand Rapids Griffins’ run to a 2017 Calder Cup championship) and, at 27 years old, he is in his prime right now. If he is ever going to be a real difference-maker in the NHL playoffs, this is his time.
Drafted by the Red Wings in the second round of the 2013 draft, Bertuzzi has yet to play a single playoff game in the NHL. By all accounts, he is a terrific presence in the locker room, and with his long hair and a smile that is missing a front tooth, he is basically what a random person would think of if you asked them to imagine a hockey player. The Maple Leafs have lethal offensive forwards in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but they do not have a player like Bertuzzi.
Furthermore, with another year on his deal that carries a cap hit of $4.75 million, Bertuzzi shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive for the Maple Leafs to add. In fact, if they send the right players over to Detroit in the deal, they could seize the opportunity to address a need in their lineup while also creating some cap space to play with.
Red Wings Need Skill & …More Skill
Outside of Bertuzzi and a handful of other players, the Red Wings do not have a ton of players that can create and sustain offensive pressure. On too many nights, the Red Wings were a two-line team at best, with the trio of Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin and rookie Lucas Raymond being the team’s most stable source of offensive pressure and chances. As evidenced by the eight teams still in the playoffs at the time of this writing, the best teams in the league are able to come at you in waves. In order to do that, teams need high-end skill on more than one line, just like how the Maple Leafs are currently set up.
The Red Wings’ best playmaker is Larkin, a fitting description for the team’s top center. As for playmakers along the wings, their best option seems to be Raymond, who finished this season with 34 assists and 57 points this season. To this point, Yzerman will be looking to add another offensive top six winger to his team this offseason.
Enter William Nylander.
The Swedish winger had his most productive season so far, finishing with 46 assists and 80 points through 81 games this season. The 26-year-old was the eighth pick of the 2014 draft, and has played seven years and well over 400 games with the Maple Leafs so far. In some ways, Nylander is the exact type of player the Red Wings hope Raymond can develop into: a playmaking winger with the ability to produce at a point per-game average.
Despite his relatively successful time with the Maple Leafs, Nylander is often singled out by fans and the media, making him the scapegoat for his team’s overall struggles. Perhaps some of that animosity stems from the winger’s hardline approach to negotiating his current contract. He sat out the first two months of the 2018-19 season until a deal was finalized at the 11th hour. Signed to six-year pact worth $45 million (with a cap-hit of just over $6.9 million), he then struggled to get going that December, and finished the season with just 27 points in 54 games. Since then, he has 181 points through 200 regular season games.
Still, Nylander found himself, at times, playing on the Maple Leafs’ third line this season as coach Sheldon Keefe looked to ignite a spark in his lineup. In the playoffs, despite producing seven points in seven games, many will point to a particularly ugly moment where Nylander went out of his way to avoid taking a hit while chasing a loose puck. As Dubas and the Leafs look to reshape their roster for next season, it seems as though Nylander may be their most moveable asset.
Red Wings & Maple Leafs Can Make A Deal
In theory, this deal sees the Maple Leafs deal away a perceived “soft” top six player to acquire the abrasive top six player they lack. It also frees up some cap space, allowing them more financial flexibility to potentially retain players like Mark Giordano or goaltender Jack Campbell. For the Red Wings, this swap would see them get a little bit younger, and it would give them a top six winger that has outproduced Bertuzzi to this point in their careers, and could also be a mentor for Raymond that can speak the 20-year-old’s native language.
But a one-for-one trade seems highly unlikely. Nylander is the Maple Leafs’ most moveable asset in part because he might have the best value contract on their books. He’s the cheapest of their “big four” forwards, but Matthews isn’t going anywhere, nobody is going to want a slowly aging John Tavares, and Marner’s deal would be incredibly difficult to move if that was the route they went. Dubas can’t afford to sell low or even just get “fair” value on a potential Nylander move. That’s why Toronto would likely want a little more from the Red Wings in this proposed trade.
Instead of adding to the deal, Yzerman and the Red Wings could instead look to further alleviate the Maple Leafs’ cap crunch by taking on goaltender Petr Mrazek. Signed for two more seasons at a cap-hit of $3.8 million, the 30-year-old goaltender never found his footing in Toronto this season, leading him to sit in the press box during the Maple Leafs’ first round series against the Lightning. A 2010 draft pick of the Red Wings, Mrazek played 166 games over six seasons with Detroit, so he is already familiar with the organization. As an added bonus, he has experience playing with Red Wings goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic as both goalies formed the tandem in net for the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2020-21 season. With a projected $36.5 million in cap-space to play with this offseason, the Red Wings have plenty of breathing room to take on this kind of money.
Taking on Mrazek would free up even more cap space for the Maple Leafs while also giving the Red Wings someone who could feasibly form a tandem with Nedeljkovic next season. To balance out the value and complete the deal, Toronto would also have to send a draft pick or a prospect to Detroit.
Admittedly, all of this completely hinges on something changing regarding Bertuzzi’s ability to travel to Canada. The fit is there, and the interest has reportedly been there for over a year now, so if something does change, you can expect many more people to connect the dots between this player and the Maple Leafs. With both the Red Wings and Toronto looking to shake things up, a move of this magnitude would accomplish that and then some.
Stay tuned – things could get very interesting in the coming months.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.