Why this season might be Tyler Bozak’s most important, but last as a Leaf

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Just a few years ago, Tyler Bozak was the most polarizing hockey player in Toronto. Some believed he was the first line centre that fit the Leafs’ needs, due to supposed chemistry with Phil Kessel and a knack for winning faceoffs. Some felt that he was being carried, that he was a drag on possession, that the chemistry was non-existent, and that what he was good at didn’t help much.

Like most arguments, it turns out that the answer was somewhere in the middle. His play style changed for the better under Mike Babcock, and his numbers ended up getting better, rather than worse, even as his beloved linemate and close friend left for cup-winning pastures.

It’s a great story. But it’s one that will probably come to an end soon enough.

As it stands, this is going to be Bozak’s most valuable year to the team, and by a considerable margin. Of course, that’s something that’s easy to assume based on the score sheet; with 14 points in his first 16 games, this feels like it’ll be the year that he’ll finally crack the 50-point plateau if healthy, even if he doesn’t continue the current pace of 72. 

He’s found some actual clear chemistry with Mitch Marner as well; both players like the move the puck around and both like to carry it, but rather than splitting responsibilities, the two have done something that Bozak never really did with Kessel; they’re working in tangent, not afraid to use each other to move the puck up, or cycle around the zone while James van Riemsdyk finds his danger spot. What appears to be a heightened awareness of risk-reward out of Marner has also led to fewer situations where Bozak gets caught failing to convert or continue a play, rather taking the extra second to find a better spot. That could just be a Babcock thing as well, but certainly, it’s leading to Bozak getting more close-range shots and the entire line getting extremely dangerous opportunities, allowing them to explode on even on the nights where they get outmatched, like last night.

I do think he also brings a hint of an indirect boost in being Marner’s mentor. While leadership and intangibles don’t matter as much as certain crowds will attempt to sell you, they’re still an icing on the cake, and in this case, one can argue that it’s a pretty gourmet icing. Bozak, who is now the grizzled veteran on this team rather than the rookie plucked out of college, has been through the ups and downs of rookie uncertainty and being thrust up the lineup and into the spotlight through a stellar opening month of his career.

He’s been through the scrutiny of people not knowing what his future holds. He’s been the lanky undersized rookie, as an unintentional result of suffering H1N1 while with the Marlies in 2009. He’s been a local hero and a local villain, often at the same time. He’s seen coaches and GMs come and go, blueprints drawn and ripped apart. He’s the longest standing piece of a prior generation of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That would be enough to make him a mentor to Marner on its own, but there’s one thing that sets the whole thing into overdrive; Marner’s own roots.

Marner, as we all know, is Toronto-area born and raised. He grew up a diehard Leafs fan, and his dream was to be drafted by the team; something he got. Marner never got the opportunity to shake off his young brain, that dreamed of scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in Blue and White. So for him, this isn’t just a grizzled vet showing him the way; it’s his grizzled vet. Tyler Bozak isn’t just his teammate who has been through some stuff; Tyler Bozak is the guy who he was cheering for on his TV set hundreds of times since he was twelve years old. I know that sounds crazy, but if you need a real-world example of the Bozak phenomena, look no further than who Connor McDavid compares himself to.

Marner doesn’t just learn from him; he fills in blanks and gains context on childhood memories that drove him to the show. Would that all matter if Bozak was a bad player? Not a chance; I’m not about to pull Jerred Smithson out of retirement to give Mitch more nostalgia buddies. But it’s a welcomed boost to a productive line.

Now, all of this together is making Bozak the most valuable he’s ever been to the team. But as much as it’s a gift in this torch-passing year, I’m less certain than ever that his future with the team is a long one.

The reality is pretty simple at this point. Bozak has a high chance of having the best year of his career in a season where he’ll turn 31 years old, and it’s likely not something that will hold. Even if it turns out the prior years were drenched in misuse, bodies break down over time and the expectation that he’ll improve with age rather than regress is one that plays with fire.

But for many teams, they’re not worried about how Bozak plays five years from now. That was an issue when the Leafs signed him to a contract of that length in 2013, but he’s now in that deal’s penultimate year. At $4.2 million per, this version of Bozak looks to be a sound bargain, and without a significant commitment of money, a player who can slide into the middle six and collaborate with your up-and-comers might be of value to a team.

From Toronto’s perspective, what he brings to the table on the ice is valuable, but perhaps that value can be shifted elsewhere. If Bozak does begin to gain interest, he could go a long way in acquiring them a quality all-around defenceman from a team that might have a surplus but is struggling down the middle. That leaves them with a hole, but with William Nylander capable of going back to centre, Peter Holland capable of playing minutes, and players like then Frederik Gauthier and Adam Brooks potentially waiting to compete for spots for next year (they’ll be 22 and 21 by training camp), there’s an argument made that selling him high to plug a position of weakness might be the shrewd decision from an asset management perspective.

Or perhaps you keep him through the season. After all, there are other ways to plug holes, and maybe the Leafs want to continue to run the most exciting Top-9 in hockey into the spring. In that case, a successful Bozak becomes a great piece to dangle to the Las Vegas Whatever Knights come the expansion draft; that team will be looking to succeed soon, they’ll need a couple of older but solid contributors, and if the Leafs don’t feel he’s a vital piece, leaving him out allows them to protect prospects and expose a younger, lower profile player or two that they’d prefer to keep but not waste a spot protecting. Losing him clean also gives the Leafs another $4.2 million to spend in a year where they’ll have the most disposable income of any team in the league, which could be used to get creative and offer huge, but very short term contracts to some of July’s biggest names.

Whatever the case may be, whether it’s selling to address weaknesses or exposing to protect younger assets, I can’t imagine the Leafs holding onto longest-held roster player beyond this year. The situation is just too perfect for them right now; he’s pulling the youngsters, especially those most familiar with him, through the baby steps, and by the time they’re ready to take care of the show themselves, the Leafs will have the chance to swap him out with the next-next-generation.

Only time will tell if that’s actually the case, but in the meantime, we can at least appreciate that he’s been more fun than ever to watch of late.

  • Stan Smith

    All of what you have written may come to pass. it could also end up that Bozak signs an extension for less money than he is making now, and continues to mentor young players, while slowly moving down in the pecking order, eventually becoming the character, 4th line centre.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Replacing Bozak is what needs to be carefully considered. In the system Byron Froese is our top scoring centeman with 6 goals and 2 assists so far this year. Are Froese, Nylander or Brooks ready to play a top 9 NHL center role? Nylander looks to be the obvious choice. Like most young guys he has struggled at NHL faceoffs.

    Personally I think this upcoming expansion draft was designed to expose good young players to stock LV. I would assume taking a 32 year old center would not be their best interest. Though it does remain to be seen who actually is exposed.

    So that leaves trading Bozak for a top four D-man. What could we realistically expect in return for Bozak? It seems to me we would have to sweeten the deal considerable to acquire a good defenceman.

    I will add here, After trading Dion Phaneuf we don’t have anyone from that trade playing for the Leafs. I don’t criticize the trade, because the long term cap savings far outweigh any short term gain we would have received had we retained him.. Now, like over half the other teams in the league we are need of a top 4 D-man.

    • Simon Bud Wake

      I think it’s a bit funny that you mention trading Dion for not very much while talking about how impossible it is to get a top 4 d-man without paying tons… Dion Phaneuf is a top 4 d-man

        • Simon Bud Wake

          yeah, obviously a Dion-type player isn’t what we’re looking for, but he fits ottawas short term needs. my point is that you don’t always need to give up tons of assets if the right circumstance comes along. Find someone who’s a top 4 but payed like a top 2 (we’ll have enough cap space to cover a million dollar overpayment or so), or someone who is a top 4 D, but is underappreciated by his team, or next summer let them send some short term ugly contracts our way to sweeten the pot…

          Our defence needs improvement, but not desperately like Edmonton did. We have time to wait and negotiate from a position of power.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            Fare enough. Salary aside, we could certainly use Phaneuf in our lineup. My guess is the Leafs will wait to see if Nielson can make the jump next year. Plus pickup a top four from a team squeezed by the fact only 3 D-man can be protected in the upcoming expansion draft. Some teams have couple defencemen with no trade clauses forcing them to trade at less then market value one of their other top four.

  • tealeaves

    Come on now, no one believes Bozak is/was a first line center. That narrative was created so he could be compared to kopitar, bergeron and crosby to demonstrate that he was not a first line center and push their propgangda.

    This reads like Jeffler is still trying to get rid of Bozak claiming this might be Bozak’s best offensive year and his production will certainly decline. As other have said, we have heard that story before and Bozak has proven Jeffler (and others on this site) wrong every year without fail. First it was Bozak’s unsustainable and near league leading SH% that he sustained much to the chagrin of haters for several years. Then it was the loss Kessel last year which still had Bozak put up decent offensive production. There were those that pointed to Bozak’s “high” and questionable PP production which would not be sustainable (and well at least you guys got that right) but this year he is getting little PP production just a ton of ES offence. And now we read Bozak’s death is near though we don’t know perhaps he might have a similar fate of other late blooming college players that peak and sustain production later then the “average” CHL drafted player. So let’s keep selling the fear right? Do players suddenly go from a 60 or 70 point pace to zero? Gomez is more the exception then rule as most players decline slowly as they age.

    And here is the puzzle to consider with Bozak this year – his shot rates is way up this year and his SH% is still high. Generally as you age, your shot rates (and SH% fall). Bozak SH% is a little lower this year and so perhaps Bozak may be declining in production as other players but perhaps under a Babcock system he setting his new normal for shots which was higher then his old normal and can sustain his offensive production just a little longer. Just a little longer to prove you wrong about him yet again.

    I am amazed you wrote with a straight face, that Bozak is playing such amazingly that the leafs could glean a talented blue liner to help them in that area and if not perhaps we could OFFLOAD him on Vegas to save cap. Eventually Jeffler will be right as father time catches up to everyone. But in essence this is the same fear based hit story urging fans to yearn to trade Bozak soon for some value before he declines.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Well said. I couldn’t agree with you more. Bozak has been given a prominent role with every coach he has played for since he arrived. They can’t be all wrong.

      At the same time Jeff touts “Free Frankie Corrado,”. The only one who can get Corrado in the lineup is Corrado himself. There are job openings.

      Last year some of the story lines were ” At last Kadri gets his chance to be the #1 center.

      Finally we get rid of Phaneuf. Now we are desperate for a defenceman..

      Finally we got rid of Polak…. Then went straight to the bottom of the tank.

  • Jack Kirchhoff

    Poor Tyler Bozak. For years, commenters wanted to get rid of him because he wasn’t good enough. Now he’s apparently on his way out because he’s good. Mr. Veillette says (okay, writes), “At $4.2 million per, this version of Bozak looks to be a sound bargain, and without a significant commitment of money, a player who can slide into the middle six and collaborate with your up-and-comers might be of value to a team.” Seems to me that he “might be of value” to the Leafs, too, and for the very same reasons.