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.
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.