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.
What a feed here from Tyler Bozak to Mitch Marner for the 4-2 Leafs goal. 15 minutes to go in the third period. pic.twitter.com/bs4fRSSc2t
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 6, 2016
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.
My goodness, this Mitch Marner pass to Tyler Bozak on the 3-2 go-ahead goal. He’s unreal already. pic.twitter.com/HkDWFyj45f
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) October 28, 2016
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.
Young Tyler Bozak getting into the high danger areas and turning lemons into lemonade here. 2-0 Leafs, shots are 15-3 Toronto. pic.twitter.com/oSGUHt4Xnw
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 5, 2016
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.