The Ducks struck again on the free-agent market, signing wing Todd Bertuzzi to a two-year, $8-million contract on Monday in a bold, even controversial move that also reunites him with General Manager Brian Burke.
Burke was the GM for the Vancouver Canucks when Bertuzzi became a star power forward, scoring 206 of his 226 career goals over seven-plus seasons.
And Burke is banking that Bertuzzi can find his game with the Stanley Cup champions, even though the winger sat out most of last season because of a herniated disk in his back.
“You’re talking about a player that’s been a first-team All-Star,” Burke said. “I know what this guy can do for a hockey team.”
But it was while with the Canucks that Bertuzzi, now 32, did something on the ice that made him reviled -- even now, more than three years later.
It was in Vancouver, the night of March 8, 2004, and it became the darkest moment for both Bertuzzi and Colorado center Steve Moore.
In the game against the Avalanche, Bertuzzi blindsided Moore, driving him headfirst into the ice. It was in retaliation for a high hit that Moore put on Markus Naslund in a game a month earlier.
The toll on the surface: three fractured vertebrae in Moore’s neck and a severe concussion. The deeper toll: Moore has been unable to resume his once-promising career because he still suffers from post-concussion syndrome. Bertuzzi was suspended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for the rest of that season and later pleaded guilty to assault after arranging a plea bargain with prosecutors in British Columbia.
Burke, who has maintained a close friendship with Bertuzzi, said he understands there will be those among the Ducks’ fan base that will be critical of his signing.
“What happened that night obviously changed a lot of lives,” Burke said from his off-season home in Vancouver. “Most people up here think it cost me my job. On a rational level you could say that I should want nothing to do with Todd.
“I respect him. There was an error in judgment made that night. I’m not going to defend what he did. I think his intention and motivation was sound as a teammate. It was an error in judgment, an unfortunate one and a serious one.”
Burke said he hadn’t planned on making another free-agent move after signing defenseman Mathieu Schneider to a two-year contract on Sunday. But with Teemu Selanne yet to decide whether he is retiring, Burke didn’t hesitate when Bertuzzi sought out the Ducks through his agent, Pat Morris.
“When a player of that caliber wants to come to Anaheim, I’d better be interested,” Burke said. “That’s my job.”
Bertuzzi will be paid $4 million in each of the next two seasons.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, he acknowledged that he wanted to play again for Burke in the hope that he can resurrect his once-soaring career, saying, “It’s pretty special for a Stanley Cup champion to find room to get me in.”
A former two-time 30-goal scorer, Bertuzzi last season was limited to 15 regular-season games -- collecting three goals and 11 points -- with the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings because of his bad back, which required surgery last November.
But his ability to play with grit and score made him valuable. While with the Canucks, he scored 36 goals in 2001-02 and a career-high 46 in 2002-03.
Detroit acquired Bertuzzi at the Feb. 27 trade deadline. In 16 playoff games, he had three goals and seven points. One of those goals came against the Ducks in the Red Wings’ 5-0 Game 3 victory in the Western Conference finals.
While he enjoyed Detroit, Bertuzzi said he wanted to move on when it was apparent that the Red Wings wouldn’t offer more than a one-year deal.
“I know my game is still there,” he said. “I’m still passionate about the game, and I still want to play the game. Being able come to an organization with the young talent it has and the grit and toughness that they bring just gives you a shot in the arm.
“I’m looking forward to being part of a puzzle.”
After his suspension for the hit on Moore, Bertuzzi was reinstated by the league on Aug. 8, 2005, after the lockout, but has yet to regain his past form. Last summer, Vancouver traded him to Florida in a five-player deal that brought star goalie Roberto Luongo to the Canucks.
The trade backfired on the Panthers when Bertuzzi experienced back spasms early last season before opting for surgery. He scored just one goal for them, which came in his debut.
Burke said the Ducks will put him through an extensive physical at the start of training camp and is confident that Bertuzzi is sound, noting his performance with Detroit in the postseason.
Mostly, the Ducks’ general manager said he believes the person he calls “my friend” is due for a career comeback.
“I’m big on second chances,” Burke said. “People forget everything that he did good in Vancouver. They just focus on that one night. A moment, a lapse in judgment that has lasted a long time. It might have happed in a second but it lasts to this day.
“I respect Todd Bertuzzi and I’m looking forward to going to war with him.”
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Bertuzzi’s NHL career statistics
*--* SEASON TEAM GP G A P +/- PIM PP SH GW 1995-96 N.Y. Islanders 76 18 21 39 -14 83 4 0 2 1996-97 N.Y. Islanders 64 10 13 23 -3 68 3 0 1 1997-98 N.Y. Islanders 52 7 11 18 -19 58 1 0 1 1997-98 Vancouver 22 6 9 15 2 63 1 1 1 1998-99 Vancouver 32 8 8 16 -6 44 1 0 3 1999-2000 Vancouver 80 25 25 50 -2 126 4 0 2 2000-01 Vancouver 79 25 30 55 -18 93 14 0 3 2001-02 Vancouver 72 36 49 85 21 110 14 0 3 2002-03 Vancouver 82 46 51 97 2 144 25 0 7 2003-04 Vancouver 69 17 43 60 21 122 8 0 2 2005-06 Vancouver 82 25 46 71 -17 120 12 0 3 2006-07 Florida 7 1 6 7 -4 13 1 0 0 2006-07 Detroit 8 2 2 4 3 6 0 0 0 Totals: 725 226 314 540 -34 1,050 88 1 28