Sunday, September 2, 2012

Finding Bozak: Looking At Roles For The Leafs' Biggest 'Tweener

This year’s NHL season, when it eventually gets under way, will be an important one for Tyler Bozak.

He is one of a handful of Leafs with a contract coming up for renewal at year’s end -- the final year of a 2 year deal with an annual cap hit of $1.5 million.
Aside from the pending end of his contract forcing managements’ hand, the team will be forced to decide on Bozak’s future in Toronto one way or another.  Bozak is entering his 3rd full season in the league and isn’t considered a prospect anymore.
At 26, Tyler’s age has, in a way, worked against him with the media and fans alike in Toronto. With only 2 full years of NHL experience there is no doubt he’s still acclimatizing himself to the game, learning the nuances, and adjusting from what is a vastly different league than the NCAA.
One interesting anecdote that came up when researching Bozak’s history was his offensive dominance in 2006-2007 playing for the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League). The league is popular for players who are considering going onto College or University, since the league is unpaid and thereby preserves a players NCAA eligibility. That year, Bozak led the league in scoring with 128 points in only 59 games. His linemate for much of the season was Dallas Stars' forward Jamie Benn. There is a great article over at the Stars blog Defending Big D detailing Benn’s rise to prominence that noted his stock with NHL scouts was hampered by what were perceived to be bloated stats from playing alongside the league’s best player, Tyler Bozak.
There have been flashes of offensive prowess for Bozak at the pro level as well. In 2009-10, Bozak amassed 27 points in 37 games playing in large part alongside Phil Kessel. 2011-12 saw some regression, as many would expect in a softmore year, producing only 32 points, and ending with an Augusta-worthy plus/minus of -29. Last year, however, he quietly put together an effective offensive season with 18 goals and 27 assists. Putting Bozak’s season in perspective, he finished ahead of players such as Mike Richards, Jeff Skinner, and Patrick Hornqvist.
Opportunities for growth still exist, as Bozak has a career shots per game of 1.46, no doubt related to his linemates and his pass-first tendency of deferring to them in the O-zone. With a shooting percentage that hovers near 15% in each of the past three seasons he could benefit from more pucks on the net and suppressing his inner-and-vastly-less-talented Joe Thornton.
What could be exciting this year is for Bozak to finally carve out a distinct niche on this team. While he was, by default, thrust into the role of 1st line center, it was clear from the beginning he was a long way removed from the label in terms of pedigree, talent, and experience. That is by no means an indictment of his skill set, but the job of team scouts, coaches, and management is to put players in a position that helps them succeed and maximizes their potential and in this regard the Leafs have made errors with Bozak.
The addition of James Van Riemsdyk has crowded the top 6 a bit heading into 2012-13, although of course this is more true on the wings than down the middle. It will be interesting to see if the rumours of JVR moving back to center are true and if he’ll see time with Kessel and Lupul, at least on the power play. If Tim Connolly can stay healthy, there's a very real chance that he'll get a crack at the first line center position as well, which would allow JVR to stay on his more comfortable position on the wing.
If Connolly-Grabovski emerges as the 1-2 down the middle then it would set Bozak up to comfortably assume the 3rd line center position. It’s here that he could continue to hone his defensive game. Last year he played just over 40 seconds per game on the PK; an area that could become a greater facet of his game depending on how and if he's utilized on the PP by Carlyle. He finished second on the team in faceoff percentage at 52%, trailing only David Steckel and his Yanic Perreault-ian 58%.
Some fans have suggested a 3rd line composed of Bozak-Kadri-Frattin, a kid line of sorts. At least on paper the line provides some intrigue, as Kadri would no doubt supply the panache and offensive flair to compliment Frattin’s strong north-south style and Bozak’s all around game.
The ‘kids’ line is certainly not the prototypical 3rd line in the NHL, nor at all the bottom 6 that Burke had imagined he’d have 5 years into his tenure. However, the new NHL has in a way forced teams to adopt a more rounded top 9 and bottom 3 approach. Secondary scoring from the 3rd line is something that could go a long way in relieving some of the pressure on Kessel and Lupul, who will see the oppositions top shut down defensive pairing every night.
While he may start the season on the 3rd line, Bozak affords the coaching staff significant flexibility. His experience playing top line minutes with Kessel and Lupul means he can, if necessary, fill in when injuries or the poor play of his teammates forces him up the depth chart.
As he enters his 4th year in the NHL and 3rd full season Bozak is beginning to find his place on the Leafs roster. He’s far from the typical 3rd line grinder of yesteryear, but his all round game could be what's needed to lead our secondary scoring now and in the future.

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