Early in his Vancouver career folks wondered how good could Todd Bertuzzi be. Now, the same people around the NHL are asking how to stop Bertuzzi from being so good.
In his first two seasons with the Canucks, Bertuzzi put together back-to-back 25-goal seasons and Canucks' management mused about how the big forward was just scratching the surface of his immense talent. Last season, Bertuzzi put up a career-high 36 goals while giving opposing defensemen nightmares with his scary combination of skill and brawn. Bertuzzi already has surpassed 40 goals as the 2002-03 regular season winds to a close.
Suddenly, Bertuzzi is no longer an ancillary player for the Canucks, but rather a marked man by opposing defenses. Coaches now stay up at night trying to figure out ways to shut down Vancouver's version of an angry bull in a very small china shop.
So far this year, few game plans have worked. Some might shut down the power forward for a while, but in the end, Bertuzzi generally gets his points. In fact, Bertuzzi has never gone more than three games without registering at least one point.
There is no doubt that part of Bertuzzi's production comes from being paired with two speedy, extremely gifted offensive players in Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison. But, there is also little doubt that Bertuzzi's additional focus has played a huge part in his breakout season.
In last spring's playoffs, Bertuzzi was a constant target of the Detroit defense in their first-round series. Bertuzzi did manage two goals and two assists in the six-game loss to the Red Wings, but, just as often, he was frustrated by the special attention paid to him by a relentless Chris Chelios, a rugged, in-your-face linchpin of the Detroit defense corps.
With a summer to digest the fact that he had emerged as a marked man, Bertuzzi came to camp ready to shake off that extra attention and continue to grow as an offensive force.
"There are different kinds of game plans that we see now to stop us -- not just me, but our whole line," admitted Bertuzzi. "That is something that we have had to adjust to and work through throughout the year.
"It's a focus thing for sure. It boils down to your own individual preparation for the game. You need to understand that you're going to face that kind of pressure from other teams' defenses, night after night. Sometimes, you just have to make your own room out there."
At no time does Bertuzzi make more room for himself than when his team is on the power play. In that scenario, Bertuzzi is the fulcrum that stabilizes the man-advantage attack. His presence in front usually ties up at least one defender, allowing Vancouver's shooters more lanes to attack the net.
"I go to the front of the net because I've got nowhere else to go on the power play," said Bertuzzi, who has a career-high 21 power-play tallies this season. "Where else could I go? I've got no other position and I enjoy the work there. It's a lot of dirty work but I have fun with it. I enjoy the competitive aspect of it."
While Bertuzzi might have fun with it, few defensemen enjoy the fray as much. Bertuzzi uses his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame to punish anyone that dares stand in his way.
"He's a force out there, a great talent," New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens said. "He's really improved in the goal scoring and puck handling. He's always been a physical presence. You don't see too many guys with that size and strength and that talent. He is definitely one of the key players in the League right now."
"I go to the front of the net because I've got nowhere else to go on the power play." - Todd Bertuzzi
So, how do you stop him?
"You've got to be smart," Stevens said. "You've got to try to poke the puck off a guy like that and have good body position. You want to be on the defensive side of him all the time, between him and the net. I think that's the best way to defend a big man like Todd Bertuzzi."
Mathieu Schneider, recently obtained to play defense for the Red Wings, played with Bertuzzi during the forward's rookie season with the New York Islanders. Since then, he has had memorable battles as an opponent while playing for Toronto, the Rangers and Los Angeles.
He has keenly watched Bertuzzi's development into an elite player.
"I played with him in New York with the Islanders and he's just a huge kid," said Schneider. "He didn't use his size to his advantage when he was young. It was just going to take time for him to develop, you could see that right away. He's fun to watch.
"You've really seen him raise his game and that's had a great effect on Todd and how he approaches things."
Again, fun to watch, but not so fun to stop. Schneider has fun playing against Bertuzzi because of the bond they shared back in 1995-96, but he has no more answers than anyone else when it comes to slowing down the Bertuzzi express these days.
"I have fun with Bert when we play each other, we're always jawing," says Schneider. "Like, I said, I knew him when he broke into this League and he's just a big fun-loving kid. When I play against him, I know I can't get the better of him physically too often, so I just have to outsmart him and get the better of him positionally. "
So far this season, Bertuzzi has proven that Schneider's words are easier said than executed.