How Toronto’s systems shift unearthed a more impactful Tyler Bozak

Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

When Tyler Bozak stepped onto the ice at the Air Canada Centre last night, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to bring to the table. “It sucks watching and waiting and skating and not being ready to play, but it’s nice to be ready, and hopefully I don’t hold the kids back too much,” Bozak said after the previous morning’s practice. “I’m probably going to take a period to get everything back.”

Four minutes later, the first of his team-leading five shots on net was placed firmly into the back of Anaheims’s net; the first of two for him and six for the Leafs. Once again, it came from a spot that he would never have been in last season.

Bozak’s 21-game absence came as a result of his first (and hopefully last) concussion of his professional career. It still blows my mind that Mika Zibanejad thought that hit was in any way a good idea; an elbow to the head of a player who is jumping to dodge you and is far away from the puck is undeniably a terrible idea. “It’s a pretty important part of your body that you don’t want to mess around with,” Bozak told reporters on March 18th. “It’s something you don’t want to rush.”

After years of prior regimes seemingly rushing their players back, it’s been good to see the team become more patient and long-game focused with injury treatment this season. Head injuries are obviously the biggest risk of all, and the patience showed with Bozak, and top prospect William Nylander was a breath of fresh air.

Many expected Bozak to be shut down for the year, perhaps hoping that would be the case for the sake of Toronto’s tumble to the bottom of the standings. Which, of course, is a narrative shift compared to previous years.

To say that Bozak was a polarizing figure in the Leafs community would be an understatement. I should know; my pitchforks were among the sharpest you could find. Some believed him to be a legitimate, first line, two-way presence for the team. Others felt that he was being carried by Phil Kessel and [Insert Left Winger Here] and of no benefit to the team; especially with a five-year commitment to the team.

In a sense, we were all simultaneously spot on and completely off at the same time.

Season Age GP G A P ESG60 ESA60 ESP60 SH% CF%Rel
2009/10 23 37 8 19 27 0.73 1.84 2.57 15.7 1.2
2010/11 24 82 15 17 32 0.43 0.59 1.01 12.5 -1.2
2011/12 25 73 18 29 47 0.68 0.96 1.64 16.5 -2.5
2012/13 26 46 12 16 28 0.62 0.89 1.51 19.7 1.7
2013/14 27 58 19 30 49 0.65 1.68 2.32 21.1 0.2
2014/15 28 82 23 26 49 0.37 0.85 1.23 14.9 -0.8
2015/16 29 48 12 21 33 0.56 1.12 1.68 13.3 1.1

Despite missing out on the start of the youth invasion, Bozak is having one of the best seasons of his career. Even with lower-profile linemates (his main matches this year have been P.A. Parenteau and the recently-departed Shawn Matthias), Bozak’s even strength rate numbers are the third highest of his career. His possession numbers are way up too; a 50.9% Corsi-For is far and away his best since his rookie season, and his relative numbers are near his best.

With You / Without You stats are a bit of a trickier story, due to his departure coming around the time that Mike Babcock turned his team from an improved possession team to a borderline elite one. Players like Parenteau and Jake Gardiner have better-looking numbers without him, but those who disappeared at similar points in the timeline (Matthias, Dion Phaneuf, Daniel Winnik, Joffrey Lupul) appear to have been carried by Bozak more so than the other way around; something that rarely happened with his previous teammates.

It’s not so much that Bozak has magically become a better player, though. The changes are systematic; Mike Babcock’s strategies are simply tailored to match his skillset. The astonishing thing is that this doesn’t require any particular work; Babcock’s silver bullet here is one of common sense, in the sense that he operates a system that actually engages his centres.

Under Randy Carlyle, we were perhaps delivered a flawed angle at evaluating Bozak because he diligently followed a system that was destructive to his play. Toronto’s breakout greatly favoured dump-and-chase, and it greatly preferred using the team’s wingers to accomplish this. This often left Bozak trailing to get into the offensive zone, where he’d creep up to the top of the slot; ideal for his historically-high shooting percentage, but not so great for winning hockey games. If he did receive the puck on the way out, he often defaulted to passing it to Kessel and hoping for his superstar linemate to either pick a corner and create a rebound.

The role has changed now. Not just for him, but for every centre on the team. The Leafs are expected to carry the puck when they can, and often, the centre will be the one who dictates the direction. The slot presence is typically a winger (one of the reasons for Leo Komarov’s coming out party), and centres will often come in to support along the boards if need be. They’re expected to cycle the puck, and cycle themselves.

In fact, just about every centre that has played for the team this year has seen improvements in their ability to drive play and generate opportunity, or to take advantage of the skill sets that got them to where they are. In our pursuit to prove that Bozak was perhaps not Toronto’s most talented centre in previous years, we may have lost sight of the fact that misuse of the position was rampant on the whole. Overnight, the position has shifted from one of confusion to one of structure.

Bozak, for all the criticism he received over the years, is a player that clearly suits this type of methodology. He’s shifty, he’s offensively intelligent, and he can make a decent pass. More importantly, he buys into what he’s told; even if it’s counter-productive for himself.

Because of this, he’s shooting more too; he’s putting up career highs in shot attempt rates on the powerplay, but even more drastically at even strength. His shooting percentage is suffering a bit, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s still well above the league average despite pushing out more ambitious attempts.

It’s hard to say where Bozak’s future lies with the team. The Leafs have a lot of skilled offensive talent coming up the pipeline, particularly at centre, which could eventually make him the odd man out. This could be encouraged further if he closes out the year strong, confirming to the 29 other teams in the league that the injury didn’t slow him down.

But if a move doesn’t happen, there are worse things in the world to have than a cycle-friendly, puck possession steady, somewhat affordable middle six option in Tyler Bozak. That still sounds a little weird, but like most things in life, building a hockey team is about looking forward rather than looking back.

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    • magesticRAGE

      I totally agree I live in London and have seen marner play every game since been in London and boy oh boy is he a sight to see. Not only on pp but kills penalties blocks shots and great 5 on5.All around hockey player with great coaches.His stamina is huge normally plays full2 min pp if it lasts that long. Boy are Leaf fans in for a treat his passes are on tape and harder than most guys shots.Size wont be a factor has the gretzky like ability to see out back of his head.

  • magesticRAGE

    The gap in results between Bozak and Kadri this season has shrunk considerably. Kadri still has 5 years of youth which for the team is a consideration. And he is the better play maker though under a Babcock system the two players are more interchangeable.

    Bozak is the player I want traded if we have to make room at center, though if Kadri’s contract demands are excessive beyond Bozak 4.2M, then dealing Kadri for an appropriate return needs to be explored.

  • Gary Empey

    If we trade Bozak, I will miss him. I mean who else can take his place as the resident whipping boy? Clarkson, Carlyle and Nonis are gone. Those were fun times. Polak and Biggs are gone too so maybe Freddie the Goat. He is big – that sounds like just the thing to to pick on. Gosh I don’t know. Right now Ben Smith and Froese seem not to useful but I’ll stick with how much Bozak makes my life miserable

  • SEER

    To be honest.., it’s ironic to mention this.., but the fan and media rivalry between Kadri and Bozak for Center position seems to have a huge twist on this…

    I don’t think, that other than during the odd line changes, that they have really played together on the same line very much, because they are both Centers.. Along comes Babcock… and tries it.. and…. “Voila”..! They seem to play really good together..

    Maybe with having so many more Center men coming up in the ranks, that this might be a future pairing..? One game is too small a sample to tell for sure, though..

    • magesticRAGE

      I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that, Bozak on the wing, but that would mean Holland doesn’t get renewed. The way Bozak had played post Kessel, under Babcock, I’m OK with passing on Holland. The Leafs will still have to eventually part with Bozak anyway, but ‘when’ might have to do with ‘who’ they draft. I doubt Marner will play center in the NHL, but we’ll see.

      • magesticRAGE

        I highly doubt Marner will play centre as well. He will be the top line RW; as of right now alongside Nylander of Kadri – maybe Matthews or Stamkos.

        As for Holland, I think he will be traded at the draft or during the offseason in exchange for a pick, packaged to move up, or for a similar RFA defenseman such as Marincin last year.

        Holland has, for better or worse, been replaced by players like Hyman, Sosh, and Leivo on the wings as thats where he played under Babcock.