Toronto Maple Leafs: The Evolution of Tyler Bozak
Tyler Bozak is a big part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, serving as a leader on and off the ice. He’s scored 206 points in his first 320 NHL games.He plays the penalty kill and on the power play, he’s played tough minutes against the opponents best players and matters more to his team in the shooutout that Phil Kessel. Yet he’s constantly questioned in Toronto.
Despite being locked up to a decent contract until 2017-18, people still wonder whether he has the ability to be the Leafs number one centre. Being questioned is nothing new to the Regina, Saskatchewan native. In fact people have been doubting him on the ice since well before his NHL career ever got started. It’s all part of the story of how Bozak evolved from an afterthought to one of the most important players for Toronto.
Sorry, Not Interested (2004-2007)
How else could a Bozak story start than with a bunch of people questioning his ability? He was unsuccessful in trying out in training camps in the WHL and settled on playing for the Victoria Salsa in the British Columbia Hockey League. For a kid wanting to play in the NHL one day that’s a big blow, but not a life sentence. Brett Hull, Glenn Anderson, Mark Recchi, Paul Kariya, Olaf Kolzig, Ray Ferraro and other NHLers all made their way through the BCHL at one point in time or another. More recent BCHL grads include Milan Lucic, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris.
Oct 25, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) during their game against the Boston Bruins at Air Canada Centre. The Bruins beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Salsa provided Bozak with the chance to play for the best team name ever, and to show what he could do, but he managed only 31 points in 55 games in his first season. He went undrafted in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the year the Maple Leafs drafted Justin Pogge in the third round, Robbie Earl in the sixth and five other players who never played an NHL game.
The big issue for Bozak was his size. At 5’9″ and around 155 pounds, he was undersized and not nearly explosive enough to draw attention away from it. Not to be deterred the young centreman kept working and pushing himself to become better. By his second year with the Salsa he was the team leader in points and by year three he led the entire league in scoring, winning the Brett Hull trophy for the leagues top scorer.
Bozak’s time spent in the BCHL was more than just growing in size (he’s now 6’1″ and roughly 195 pounds), and growing as a scorer, he also honed his craft as a two way centre and developed his hockey sense.
University of Denver (2007-08 to 2008-09)
In December of 2006 while playing for the Victoria Grizzlies (the renamed Salsa) Bozak signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Denver Pioneers. He immediately proved he belonged by being the teams leading scorer with 34 points in 41 games. He also showed his offensive ability for the first time on the penalty kill, leading the league with five short handed goals.
Per Hockey Futures, after the 2007-08 season Bozak had the chance to turn Pro but felt he wasn’t physically ready to do so.
His second season started strongly but Bozak tore his meniscus in his left knee following a knee on knee collision. He did manage 23 points in 19 games and was named to the All-WCHA Academic Team.
Following his sophomore season he became a highly sought after free agent. Reports had as many as 20 NHL teams interested in his services but he eventually decided to sign an entry level deal with the Leafs, in part because he could get into the top six right away.
The Rookie Era (2009-10 to 2010-11)
Is Bozak a number one centre? How many times have you heard that question? Probably a lot. Here’s something you probably haven’t heard: not only is Bozak the Leafs first line centre, but he has been since his rookie season.
While he only dressed for 37 games as a rookie – spending 32 more with the Toronto Marlies – Bozak actually averaged the most ice time of any Leafs centremen at 19:14 per game. The discrepancy isn’t even close, especially once Matt Stajan (18:47 per game in 55 games) was traded. The other centres Toronto boasted were Mikhail Grabovski (16:48) and John Mitchell (15:49) and a rotating cast on the fourth line.
Mar 28, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) carries the puck out of the zone past Philadelphia Flyers right wingMatt Read
(24) during the second period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
On a bad team with low expectations Bozak delivered a solid rookie campaign. 27 points in 37 games had people talking, especially when you consider that put him 9th in scoring on the team despite less than half a season. Oddly enough in his 32 games for the Marlies, Bozak was actually worse, scoring 20 points (.625 ppg, compared to .73 in the NHL). Still the hype was on for him to see how big a piece of the Leafs future he could become.
Bozak struggled in his first full season though, with only 32 points in a full 82 games. While he doubled his goals from 8 to 15, he had less assists than the half year before. Bozak fell back to second line centre duties behind Grabovski on the depth chart. While Grabovski led the Leafs in +/- Bozak was dead last on the team at -29. He had the lowest shooting % of his career and tried to overcome that by throwing more pucks at the net (a career high 120), but that didn’t work either.
Truthfully Bozak was overmatched. Despite his age he was in reality a second year player playing nearly 20 minutes a night on a team with poor defensive forwards, worse defense and horrific goaltending from Jonas Gustavsson and Jean-Sebastien Gigeure. This was a bad team in flux that saw two of it’s top six scorers (Versteeg and Kaberle) traded partway through the season.
Despite that, Bozak was doing what all good rookies do – learning. Learning to be effective in every facet of the game, from offense to defense, power play to penalty kill.
Finding His Way (2011-12 to 2013-14)
After a down sophomore season, Bozak began to develop into the player you’re more used to seeing. In fact in 2011-12, 12-13 and the first 11 games of 13-14 he averaged .644 ppg, .609 ppg and .545 ppg. Those are impressive numbers when you consider his .390 sophomore campaign.
In year three Bozak reclaimed the number one job from Grabovski. He led the Leafs in faceoffs, winning almost 53 per cent of his draws, also better than Grabovski. He showed not only his ability to score, finding the net 18 times, but also showed his ability to make things happen at even strength with 20 even strength assists, fourth on the team behind Kessel, Lupul and Grabovski.
It wasn’t all offense though, as he established himself as a true penalty killer for the blue and white during this time. He also became one of the Leafs premier shootout men, either leading the team outright or being in the top three.
Bozak seemed to be on the same pace as the previous years in 2013-14 when he was injured twice the first a hamstring issue and the second an oblique strain.
The Cocoon Bozak Era (2013-14 to Present)
If you haven’t heard of Cocoon Bozak, the simple, if strange, explanation is that it’s been popularized by @mlse on twitter in reference to the apparent difference from Bozak before and after his hamstring injury, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
Mar 19, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre. The Lightning beat the Maple Leafs 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
In his NHL career before the injury, Bozak had 140 points in 249 games for .562 ppg. In the two full years before the injury he had .644 ppg and .609 ppg. Since returning from the injury Bozak has 66 points in 71 games, or .93 ppg. Over his career average that’s an increase of .368 ppg or 30 extra points over a full season. That is a lot of points.
While it can easily be argued that this is just a hot streak, and it certainly is, the fact that it’s now been over two separate seasons indicates the dropoff shouldn’t be that extreme.
Thus far this season Bozak has a 19.6 shooting % and he had a 21.1 shooting % last year, both of which are very high for the NHL. That being said, the year before he was a 19.7, well before the ‘Cocoon Bozak’ era started. Simply put Bozak has always had a high shooting %, that’s part of what makes him so successful on breakaways and in the shootout.
You could also argue that some of these points are from playing with Kessel, one of the best offensive players in the world. Certainly that’s true, but the centre played with his teammate three years ago when he had only 28 points in 46 games (.608 ppg).
So it’s safe to say that while Bozak is white hot, he’s on pace for 79 points this year, and a dropoff is eventually coming, it’s not likely back down to the .6-.65 ppg range.
It’s not just the points either, Bozak has stepped up as more of a leader in the past few years, he continues to be a dominate shootout and breakaway presence and with better penalty killers has been able to play less minutes but play more effective minutes. With a reduction in penalty killing time, Bozak is on pace for career highs in powerplay time and points. He has nine powerplay points in 24 games, with six goals and three assists. Bozak’s previous powerplay point high was 12, in 2011-12, something that will surely be broken this year. He also looks ready to shatter his career high in points, which sits at 49. While always a good faceoff man, Bozak has raised his game their too. He has the sixth most faceoff wins this year and is sitting at 56.9 % win rate. To put that into perspective, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews, who are both considered elite, sit at 57.5 and 57.4. Among centres with at least 300 faceoffs, Bozak sits sixth in win rate.
So what exactly is Bozak? Is he a number one centre who can score a point a game? Is he a number two or three specialty faceoff guy who was lucky that Kessel likes him? Is he both? There’s always been lots of questions around Bozak and seemingly few answers.
A few things are undeniable though.
At $4.2-million per year, Bozak is cheap. His cap hit comparables at capgeek.com is an interesting list. Would you rather have him over Daniel Briere, Nikolai Kulemin, Drew Stafford and Bryan Bickell? Of course you would. Would you rather have him over Jakub Voracek, Patric Hornqvist or Adam Henrique? Not as easy a call for sure. But he’s one of the best on that list, no question.
Bozak is always going to put up points. Even in his worst year, his shooting % was 12.5. Kessel’s career shooting % is 11.2. So Bozak has always not needed a lot of shots to score. That’ll always be relevant in a shootout era.
He’s going to remain an elite faceoff guy for years. Faceoffs tend to be a lot more about power and less about reaction time than the general public seems to think, but Bozak shouldn’t suddenly drop off a cliff anytime soon. You should be able to expect numbers well above 50 per cent for the rest of his career.
Nov 22, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak (42) battles with Detroit Red Wings forwardHenrik Zetterberg
(40) for the puck at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Detroit 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
He’s also in his prime. He’s 28-years old right now, 29 in March, and hockey doesn’t get easier in your thirties. Can you expect Bozak to be around as good as he is right now for a few more years? Probably. When he’s 35? Not so much.
So while it’s easy to think that if his defensive game comes around Bozak could go from good or very good to elite, that’s just not going to happen. The Toronto fan base has a bad habit of seeing someone and their flaws and not being able to accept a good player because he’s not a great player. Bozak is never going to be the two way force that Bergeron, Toews or Sidney Crosby is, he’s just not. But he is someone you can run as your first centre until a better option (Nylander, William) comes along.
Bozak on his hot streak is in the top 15 centres in the game in scoring. He’s also better defensively than some of those above him, like Evgeni Malkin, Johansen or Nicklas Backstrom. Even when he cools off if he falls to between the 20-30th centres in the league, that’s still a number one centre. If Kadri improves enough to take the job or Nylander develops like people hope he can and takes it then Bozak becomes one of the best second line centres in the league.
Offensively, Bozak is very good to great right now, but likely to cool off. Defensively and possession wise is the next area that he has to work on. Some of those poor numbers come from playing with wingers like Kessel or Jofferey Lupul, who are defensively out to lunch, but considering that’s not likely to change Bozak still has room to grow and evolve into a better player.
After all, he’s been evolving all along.