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Trade Him Or Keep Him: Tyler Bozak

From Pension Puppets

Today on the trade block: one of the more divisive players among Leaf fans. Should he stay or should he go?

Tyler Bozak

Tyler Bozak is 29, and turns 30 in March, though many hockey commentators think he’s roughly 21.

History

Unlike many of the players featured in this series, Bozak has spent his entire career in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform. Also unlike many of the players featured in this series, he wasn’t drafted.

Bozak’s ascension to the NHL was quite unconventional. In what would have been his draft year (2004), Bozak was barely a blip on the radar. That season, he debuted with the Victoria Salsa of the BCHL, putting up 31 points in 55 games.  Think about that for a second: as an 18-year old, he was not even a point per game player in Jr. A. The fact he is even an everyday NHL player is nothing short of impressive.

Young Bozak was, however, something of a late bloomer. In his second BCHL season, he put up 69 points in 56 games for the Salsa. His breakout junior, however, came in 2006-07 at 20. He scored 45 goals and 128 points with the then-renamed Victoria Grizzlies and led the league in scoring. An even more interesting fact, however, was the chemistry he had with his linemate, some local kid from nearby Central Saanich, BC. His name is Jamie Benn; I’m not sure what he’s up to these days.

Dominating the BCHL didn’t catch the attention of pro scouts, but NCAA recruiters were certainly interested. He spent 2007 to 2009 with the University of Denver Pioneers, scoring 57 points in 60 games, and began getting the attention of the NHL.

Rumours had surrounded teams signing Bozak as a UFA throughout 2009, but it came down to a decision between two teams: the Leafs and Senators. With Ontario’s True Franchise beckoning, Bozak opted not to play for the provincial Little Brother and signed with the Leafs in April 2009.

Bozak came to the Leafs in fall 2009 as a cohort of college players signed as UFAs by then-GM Brian Burke, but would be the only one to stick with the team. He made his debut with the Leafs in October 2009, but spent most of the first half of 2009-10 in the AHL with the Marlies.

Finally, by January 2010, he was called up to the Leafs and never looked back, scoring 27 points in 37 games while on a line with newly-acquired star winger Phil Kessel (more on that later). He’s been with the Leafs ever since.

What’s He Done As A Leaf?

Hoo boy; you might want to sit down for this one.

Bozak has been somewhat of a lightning rod for Leaf fans, not particularly for anything he did on the ice, but for how he was used and valued by coaches and management. After a breakout rookie season in 2009-10, then-coach Ron Wilson- but for a few short stints here and there- effectively stapled Bozak to Kessel. When Wilson gave way to Randy Carlyle, he not only kept Bozak on the top line, but put that line out against other team’s top competition, often for defensive zone faceoffs. The results were not flattering for Bozak, to say the least.

What has really made Bozak a target of ire ought to be the fault of Nonis and, to an extent, Carlyle. After a breakout 2012-13 season for Nazem Kadri, and pending free agency for Bozak, it appeared the writing was on the wall. With a capable 1-2 punch in Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski, it was time to move on from Bozak.

Instead, we all know what happened next. Bozak got a 5-year extension worth $4.2M AAV. In a vacuum, the value wasn’t actually all that bad, but in the greater scheme of the moves Nonis made that day, Bozak became a target of fans angry with what Nonis was doing to the team.

Eventually, common sense prevailed and the dark era of Carlnonis gradually came to a close. Under interim coach Peter Horachek, however, Bozak would not be moved away from Kessel. Leaf fans wished that someone would finally separate Bozak and Kessel once and for all.

Well, you know what they say about wishes and being careful…

But, after the Kessel trade, something strange happened. Mike Babcock came in, and- this is such a weird concept in the Leafs’ coaching carousel of late- used him properly. Babcock moved from tough first line minutes to a cushier second line role with high offensive zone starts. The results have been astounding. While everyone expected Bozak to wither and die without Kessel, he’s put up 29 points in 38 games with James van Riemsdyk and P.A. Parenteau.

Overall, Bozak has 260 points in 417 career games with the Leafs, a 0.62 PPG. That’s a season-long equivalent of 51 points, which is basically the offensive output of a first/second line tweener. He’s proven an effective NHL second liner.

Why Keep Him?

He’s never been better!

Mike Babcock may have uncovered something here. By reducing his role and upping his offensive zone time (to say nothing about using him on the PP), he may be able to maximize Bozak’s talents. Even without an elite 30-goal sniper to his right, his offensive output hasn’t flagged a bit.

Maybe Babcock can really get the most out of Tyler Bozak. Maybe he should stick around so we can find out.

Why Move Him?

He’s never been better!

He’s on a 60-point pace (which would be a career high) without Phil Kessel, the guy who everyone believed was carrying his offense. His contract isn’t all that bad to swallow at $4.2M a season. He has two years remaining after this one, so he’d provide more to prospective suitors than a 2-3 month rental. There are always teams on the playoff bubble that are willing to part with picks and/or prospects for that kind of extra shot in the arm.

Sell high, the argument goes, and that makes sense. Bozak would probably have more value to a team needing depth down the middle than to the Leafs. The Leafs aren’t doing anything special this season. They will have a centre in prospect William Nylander joining the team next year, to say nothing of,….erm, other eligible centres on the UFA market, perhaps. Nazem Kadri is great. Peter Holland is solid depth. There’s increasingly less and less room for Bozak on this roster.

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

The argument for keeping him loses its legs when you consider the fact there really isn’t space for him in the long-term. Nazem Kadri and William Nylander need spots, and paying $4.2M to someone to be your third line centre doesn’t seem optimal. Making a serious run for Steven Stamkos (which, my stringent analysis concludes, the Leafs should totally do) would further muddy the waters of the depth chart.

The Leafs need to make room by getting rid of Bozak, and, what’s more, they’re actually dealing in a position of strength for a change. His play this season has probably made him a more attractive asset, and his deal is reasonable and in that nice “not a rental, but not a long-term albatross” zone that teams love.

There is a much better team than the Leafs this year that could probably use Bozak now more than we will later. Someone should offer a sufficient enough package that I’d say to go for it.

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