Commentary

'It's a heck of a lot more enjoyable now'

Updated: October 1, 2009, 8:37 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM -- We in the media often like to infuse our assessment of things with an air of finality.

We will suggest this is a player's last chance at a comeback or a coach's last chance to save his job or a GM's last chance to forge a winner.

But who can know when such a moment is at hand? Who really knows when a last chance really is just that?

Still, listening to Todd Bertuzzi, one gets the feeling his return to the Detroit Red Wings stands as that kind of moment.

At age 34, Bertuzzi isn't exactly ancient, although years of playing a tough, physical style have taken their toll. He missed time last season with hip and knee injuries, suiting up for just 66 games for the Calgary Flames.

He started the season well, but, at one point, endured a 20-game goalless drought as he struggled to stay healthy. He played in all six postseason games for the Flames and chipped in one goal and an assist.

"Last year, things started going well, then something else would hiccup, and I end up having a tear in my hip and then having knee surgery. Good, bad, good, bad. Hopefully it's changing," Bertuzzi told ESPN.com on Thursday after the Wings' workout here. "I've worked pretty hard in the summertime to get myself in a healthy spot and I'm hoping I can reward myself and also reward this team with good play."

The big forward's story is well-known.

After he became one of the game's best power forwards with Vancouver, everything changed on March 8, 2004, when he sucker punched Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche, ending Moore's career and earning an indefinite suspension.

After the 2005-06 season, Bertuzzi was traded to Florida in the deal that brought Roberto Luongo to Vancouver. Back issues caused Bertuzzi to miss most of the 2006-07 campaign, but he was sent to Detroit at the trade deadline.

Bertuzzi was able to suit up for eight regular-season games and 16 more postseason contests as the Red Wings advanced to the Western Conference finals before being halted by eventual Cup champion Anaheim. But even then, injury kept Bertuzzi from contributing in the manner he had hoped.

"It's a totally different situation [now]," Bertuzzi said. "I thought I was done for that year, so I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play. But it was kind of a catch-22. I was just not in position to play good hockey. I was just too injured and all that. Didn't have much time to figure out the systems [during my first stint with the Wings] because I didn't practice at all and I was just playing games.

"It's a heck of a lot more enjoyable now, coming in, learning the systems, actually going out there and not thinking, reacting and playing hockey," he said. "It's tough, especially for me, when you've got to think your way around this game. Just to come in like everyone else here and know the system makes practice, makes everything else more enjoyable."

Bertuzzi was set to sign with the Wings that offseason, but his old GM, Brian Burke, lured him to Anaheim with a two-year deal at a whopping $4 million annually. It did not go well, as Bertuzzi played in only 68 games in 2007-08 and scored 14 goals before being bought out of the final year of his deal.

After one season in Calgary, Bertuzzi was again looking for a new home this offseason. And while he is very much a polarizing figure in the game -- some Canadians still mistakenly believe it was Bertuzzi's inclusion on the 2006 Canadian Olympic team that cost Canada a medal -- the Wings did not hesitate to return Bertuzzi to the fold.

With the departure of key personnel like Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler, the Stanley Cup finalists were looking to add some size and skill up front. They are also a team that places a high premium on putting the team first and they clearly felt Bertuzzi was that kind of player.

What the Wings, and perhaps even Bertuzzi himself, don't know is just how this is going to play out.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has been impressed, but it's early in the going.

"He's healthy. He's skinny. He can be physical because he's healthy enough right at this point. He needs to remain healthy to get his career back," Babcock said Thursday. "Basically what he's talked to me about, he wants to change a few things. He wants to be known way better defensively. He's got to get back to shooting the puck. He just wants to be a responsible guy.

"There's no question he's at the 'team' time of his career. It's important that he wins. He wants to win and we're hoping that he fits in. He's going to play with good players. If he plays good, he's playing with good players, it's going to be a good opportunity."

Bertuzzi will start the season playing on a line with talented Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Cleary. How long he stays there will be a good indication of whether he's close to reclaiming his old game.

"He's sure got the hands and he's got the size. Can he hang onto the puck? Can he do those other things that we need him to do? I thought he was excellent last night," Babcock said of Bertuzzi, referring to a 6-2 victory over Swedish Elite League team Farjestad on Wednesday.

Beginning Friday night, when the Wings open their season against St. Louis, we are going to start finding out the answers to those questions.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.