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The Tale of Tyler Bozak

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How good is Bozak? How did we get here?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Bozak has had one hell of a run. After seasons of endless arguing, he’s now the longest-tenured Leaf on the team’s roster. He broke 500 games and 300 points this year, all with Toronto, and is unquestionably one of the most successful college free agent signings in NHL history.

At the same time, Bozie is no spring chicken. Age has yet to slow him down any—in fact, he’s coming off his career-best season in points—but he did turn 31 in March. The man whom we once joked was always Young Tyler Bozak is now a father with an A on his jersey. His famous flowing hair has been cut down to a mannerly length. He’s also going into the final year of his contract, and the Leafs have some decisions to make.

The Leafs could keep Bozak for another year. Alternatively, they could try to trade him for defensive help and replace him at centre with William Nylander (though Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock has indicated he plans to have Nylander spend another year at wing.) If the Leafs do keep Bozak, they’ll have to decide whether to let him walk or to bring him back for an extension at age 32.

To look at that choice, let’s go through the things people have believed about Tyler Bozak in the past, what’s turned out to be true, and what hasn’t.

Part One: Carried by Kessel

Tyler Bozak is the archetype of the late bloomer. At age 18, he was putting up a respectable 31 points in 55 games...in Midget AAA Hockey. He went to the British Columbia Hockey League (which is at the Junior A level, or a rung below Major Junior—the level that includes the WHL, the CHL, and the QMJHL.) Bozak had a belated breakout season at age 20, crushing the BCHL with 128 points in 59 games, but in that league at that age, no one would be holding their breath for Tyler to make the NHL. Unsurprisingly, he was never drafted.

Bozak pursued his hockey dreams at the University of Denver, where he finally flourished, as well as putting some muscle on his previously spare frame. (People sometimes think he’s originally from Colorado because of his alma mater, but Bozak is a Canadian boy, born in Regina.) Following a couple of impressive college seasons, Bozak was a hotly-pursued college free agent in spring 2009, deciding between multiple teams for his ELC the way Justin Schultz and Jimmy Vesey later would. After a lengthy process, Bozak chose the Leafs over the Ottawa Senators. Good move, Bozie.

Half a season later, Bozak was in the NHL. He quickly dazzled fans by scoring an absolutely beautiful first goal.

With 27 points in 37 games that year, the Leafs looked like they had a bona fide top six C on their hands, and excitement reigned.

Except, well, it was a bit trickier than that.

Prior to 2016-17, when a magical new future presented itself, the Leafs only really had one superstar player: right wing Phil Kessel. From the first season Bozak made the NHL, he was slotted in as Kessel’s centre, and despite brief experiments otherwise, this lasted until Kessel was traded away in summer 2015. Bozak was Kessel’s most frequent centre every year Kessel was in Toronto, and Kessel was Bozak’s most frequent winger. People had feelings about this, especially as time went on.

One line of thought went: Bozak is the defensively responsible centre who covers for Kessel, and is the best centre on the Leafs.

Another line of thought: Bozak is defensively terrible, his point totals are driven by his linemate, and he’s holding Kessel back.

And, well...it’s tricky.

When they were together, Kessel and Bozak tended to get outshot and outchanced pretty badly, a problem exacerbated under the infamous Randy Carlyle coaching era, where the Leafs as a whole routinely got slaughtered. Maybe the worst of this was the 2013-14 season, when the Leafs appeared to be sailing towards a playoff appearance and then imploded in the final twenty games. Kessel and Bozak combined for a 44.6% CF when on the ice together (which is atrocious). Kessel dropped a percentage point in that number when away from Bozak...and in the tiny sample in which he was away from Phil, Bozak put up an almost incomprehensibly poor 28.5% (There’s a reason for that, though—Bozak was often used in faceoff-get-off, or FOGO, shifts in the defensive zone, which can do a real number on your stats).

You can see what people were saying about Bozak, and what PPP was saying about him, in this article from the era. Steve Burtch sounded the warning signs about how poor the two were defensively together, and that Bozak was riding a huge shooting percentage spike, even for him.

When you put all this together, you can see why fans from earlier years—including fans on PPP—had champed at the bit to replace Bozak with Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski, alias Grabbo, put up impressive point totals in from 2010-2012, consistently better fancy stats than Bozak, and under Randy Carlyle in 2012-13, was served up absolutely brutal minutes. Grabbo worked through it without complaint, and was rewarded by the Leafs buying him out on his wedding day after the 2013 season—making room for Bozak to sign an extension. If some of the bitterness towards Bozak seems irrational now, look at the fate of Grabovski to see how people ended up this way.

Whether Grabovski was better than Bozak—well, for a time he probably was. (Grabovski’s career has since been devastated by injuries, while Bozak has risen to new heights.) But putting aside that comparison, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can pull a few things out about how Bozak and Kessel actually play.

  • Bozak has never been a good player at reducing shots against
  • Kessel also appears to be bad for shots against
  • Randy Carlyle is really bad for shots against
  • Phil Kessel is an elite offensive player
  • ...and Bozak, as it turns out, is a decent offensive player himself

Part Two: All Alone

After a miserable, wasted season in 2014-15, President Brendan Shanahan cleaned house. Randy Carlyle was fired in January 2015, and we threw a gif party. The Leafs fired Dave Nonis and interim coach Peter Horachek in April. Toronto hired Mike Babcock in May and drafted Mitch Marner in June, and traded Phil Kessel in July.

With all of this turnover, Tyler Bozak might have felt like the world had turned and left him here. The Leafs had turned the page on the era that constituted most of his career, and now he was without both his best friend on the team and his most dangerous linemate. Plenty of people (me included) expected Bozak’s production to dry up, even with James van Riemsdyk still on the team.

Aaaaand...it didn’t.

Bozak put up one of his better seasons by points per 60 in 2015-16. Aside from 2013-14 (when his on-ice shooting percentage was through the roof), it was comparable to any of his full Kessel seasons, and better than most. His possession numbers rose back to nearly break-even, and he was on pace for 50 points when he got injured.

I’m sure Bozak missed Phil on a personal level, but to the surprise of almost everyone, on the ice he didn’t seem to miss him at all.

Of course, there was a little more going on here than meets the eye. New coach Mike Babcock was freed up to try a number of things, since he was newly signed to an eight-year contract and the team was (cough) tanking for a draft pick. He had a bead on Tyler Bozak, and he seems to have concluded that Bozak was a talented offensive opportunist who could not play very good defence. So he gave Bozak a higher percentage of starts in the offensive zone than he’d ever had before. He also gave Bozak less time against first lines than previously. This turned out to be exactly the right way to use Bozak.

Part Three: Modern Bozak

So we reach last year. Centering James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner, and a generous diet of offensive zone faceoffs, Bozak produced incredibly. In 5v5 points per 60 among forwards who played at least 500 minutes, Bozak was 33rd in the NHL (and second only to JVR on the Leafs). His powerplay numbers showed in the top tier as well. You can credit his outstanding wingers once again, but at some point you have to admit Bozak is at least a productive offensive centre. To his credit, estwhile PPP and current TLN blogger Draglikepull owned this in an article last November, entitled “I Was Wrong About Tyler Bozak.”

Ty-Bo still bleeds shots against, and while that too can be shared by his wingers, it’s been too consistent a problem to wave away. But Bozak, given soft usage, can outshoot his deficits and outscore his problems, and win a few faceoffs in the bargain.

The eye test, which I’ve been avoiding up to this point, backs this up. Bozak can be an underwhelming player to watch when he’s not scoring those rare, highlight-reel goals. Search Twitter during a Leafs game, and you’ll find a plethora of fans arguing that Bozak doesn’t finish enough of the chances that his much-superior wingers gift to him. Having said that, Bozak has never shot lower than 12%, and after a while you notice that offensive plays mysteriously materialize when he’s on the ice, often enough that it’s not an accident. He makes chances happen.

Defensively, well, things get ugly when Bozak is required to cover an elite opposing forward in his own zone. He’s not really up for it, and his line struggles to clear the zone at times when he’s there. This is not all his fault, and you can find Bozak making some pretty heroic plays from time to time, but he’s an offensive centre. Burying the myth of Bozak the defensive C is another reason for such strong feelings about him in the Leafs blogosphere; once you start accepting him for what he’s worth, you can appreciate him more.

So the question becomes: what is that worth, and what could we get for him?

Part Four: Trade Him or Keep Him?

The simplest thing to do is to keep Bozak another year. He’s still productive, the Leafs want to win now, and he adds an offensive weapon to their lineup. If it ain’t broke...

At the same time, plenty of teams could make use of a Tyler Bozak. Nashville, to take one example, had no centre that could match Bozak’s 5v5 production last year, and they clearly have a hole at the position. They want to win now, obviously enough. Could there be a fit there? To take a second example, Larry Brooks has mooted the idea of Bozak to the Rangers, although his proposed return is underwhelming.

Well...with only a year remaining, a 31-year-old is always going to have lesser value than a younger, cost-controlled player. Derek Stepan, to take an example, tied in points with Bozak last year, and was part of a package to pull the seventh overall pick and Anthony DeAngelo out of Arizona. But Stepan is 27 and was under contract control for several more years.

Having said that, Bozak is a 55-point centre, and don’t look now, but as those go he’s underpaid at a $4.2M cap hit. There was a time where the Leafs might have retained salary to sweeten the pot further, but the additions of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey have made that extremely difficult. Still, for a team looking to upgrade at centre for a playoff run this year, they might look at Bozak, and think...

Well, it’s hard to know. Bozak’s tangled history above has left wide-ranging opinions on his contributions. Some people scoff at the idea Bozak is really producing on his own—he had Mitch Marner and JVR! Others are going to look at his remarkably consistent points per game—he’s been at a 49-point pace or better each of the last six years—and even his faceoff percentage (over 56% the last two years).

Ultimately, I can’t see Bozak fetching the kind of return the Leafs would be looking for by himself, or at least not enough to justify trading him right now. But as part of a package of some kind, you might be in business. If a team is willing to accept a handful of assets for a bigger single one, Bozak might be one such.

On the other hand: the Leafs want to win now, too. And Bozak can be part of one hell of a deadly offence. Maybe now, maybe even after this season, if the price is right. He’s made it longer as a Leafs’ C than many people thought. Who’s to say he won’t last longer?

At any rate, Bozak has now earned himself a place amongst the name players on the Leafs from the past eight years. He may not have been a bona fide 1C—at least, you shouldn’t be using him as one—but he’s a very useful player, and he’s made real contributions to this team. Whether he stays or goes, that’s something to applaud. Cheers, Bozie.