What to make of Tyler Bozak after the Sharks game? He played a game where he has his usual line back, Mitch Marner had a much better night, James van Riemsdyk seemed himself, and Bozak ended up benched in the third period while Patrick Marleau took over at centre.
This was a game where Nazem Kadri's line was very good at driving play and getting more scoring chances, while Matthews' line was a touch worse at the former and superb at the latter. There were two offensively forceful lines on the ice for the first time in a long time.
So while it is true to say that Frederik Andersen held the door against all attacks while the Leafs didn't convert many of their own, the Leafs did have chances, and they weren't all from Auston Matthews and company for a change.
Last season, sometimes the second good offensive line in a game was Kadri's and sometimes it was Bozak's. For whatever reason, that has changed, and now if Kadri’s line struggles, there is one offensive force on the team. Even when Kadri plays well, the team is leaning on Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman to create most of the scoring chances.
Nothing about this most recent game negates Bozak's season record to date. He's not generating in the offensive zone. He's one of the worst players on the team at offensive pace (which is the weird part). All his old flaws are still there.
Okay, then, take away the job of generating offence if he suddenly can’t do it.
He can't be the fourth line centre, he's not qualified to do it. If he had any defensive skills at all, even a hint of them, then I'd say go for it for a few games. It gave Mitch Marner some time to think about playing away from the puck, and I think he was better at that in particular last night. But Bozak will flounder worse there than he is now. His trade value will ebb away fast too if it’s for more than a few games.
So there is only one other option: make him a winger. Give his job to Marleau permanently, at least on a temporary basis. In other words, this isn’t a full season game-plan, but unless Bozak has a magic reset button, some new arrangement might be needed for a few weeks or months.
I first thought you could simply put Mitch Marner with Kadri and Leo Komarov to replace Marleau on that line. I've really wanted to see that line for a while.
As an aside here, I'm not really super high on Komarov. But he was critical in the Sharks game at keeping the Leafs from losing all chance. He and his line had exactly the right game to beat the Sharks, who I think are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, so it's not like the other lines stubbed their toes on a bad team.
Komarov fits with Kadri, and he fits at the left wing side, and I think moving him to the right side, while not supremely negative, hasn't been a positive either. I want those two together for sure. And to begin the lineup construction, I'm starting there.
I'm not breaking up the Matthews' line. Sometimes breaking up the super line is absolutely what you want to do, but one: this isn't a super line, it's a pair of players who are super plus a compliment that suits them perfectly. And two: you break up an "all the eggs in one basket" line, and the Leafs have a lot more eggs. The goal here is to make last night's two-line offence the minimum every night not the exception.
Tyler Bozak is now a winger. So I thought about him, how he plays, what he can do, and I thought that you need to put this guy with a high-shot rate centre. He needs to pass to his linemates. And then I figured that you need that centre to be defensively capable, and you need someone else to do the defensive zone exit. Props to Kevin again for this, he says over and over that the Bozak line as we've known it has no zone exit guy. He's right. So here's what I came up with:
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Leo Komarov- Nazem Kadri - Tyler Bozak
James van Riemsdyk - Patrick Marleau - Mitch Marner
Pros to this madcap scheme
Bozak is a distributer and Kadri is a shooter. But up until now, Kadri has been shooting primarily from the high slot, Komarov has been taking too many of that line's shots and they haven't been offensively dangerous. This puts the puck on Kadri's stick more.
Bozak is a righty, and the passing becomes less tricky on Kadri's line.
Komarov is good at defensive zone execution, and he and Kadri can assay a zone exit.
The three of them are speed matched well enough. They aren't blowing you away, but they’re good enough.
Bozak is a tougher customer than he gets credit for, and an assignment to forecheck hard might not be the worst thing for him.
Marleau has played high-level hockey, often at wing, for as long as Marner has been alive. He might have things to teach him.
This line is also, lefty, lefty, righty, with the left wing playing net-front. Marleau is a high enough volume shooter to handle the level of passing Marner does (less than Bozak).
Cons to this absurdity
Marleau might well be past it in terms of playing as a centre all the time.
Marleau's game is so similar to van Riemsdyk's that they might end up both on the goal mouth all the time. This works for Hyman and Matthews, however.
Marleau is better than Bozak at zone exits; my cat likely is, but is he enough for those two wingers?
Marleau is not significantly gifted at defensive zone execution, although, like my cat again, he's better than Bozak.
Add it up
You get two lines that are tough on the forecheck and have scorers. You have a line that might succeed in foregrounding Marner's offensive skills effectively. You have all the most skilled players doing (mostly) the thing they are best at, not the thing they can fake on a good day.
If Bozak flames out, you can pop Kasperi Kapanen or Connor Brown in that spot without disrupting the lines.
And the more I think about this, the more I think "puts the puck on Kadri's stick more" is the most important improvement this team can make.
Why do this at all?
Are you ready to declare Tyler Bozak essentially valueless and punt him to the fourth-line or the press-box for good?
Set aside who you want to see on the reality television show Leafs 2017-2018 season. This isn’t a stale character you want to write out and replace with some new guy you cast out of your imagination. This is a hockey team that has to balance tomorrow’s lineup with the value of their pending UFAs at the trade deadline and their asset pool for years to come.
The best case scenario is that he just snaps out of it, and returns to his play of last year. And it is still possible to simply wait for that. But what do you do when you’ve decided to stop waiting?
You could simply take him out of the picture entirely for a few games. Brown and Kapanen are right there. But if he can’t snap out of it, if some genuine change in him has suddenly stunted his offensive ability so that he’s half the man he was six months ago when he played hurt, then just take a sixth round pick for him.
I just think that’s a snap decision no one should make. If his value now and at the deadline can be increased, it should be.
You tell me what you think. I know what I think is the biggest flaw in this idea, I’m just not sure how you fix it without a magic wand.
And in practice at least, Babcock is more radical than me: