Lost in all of the fanfare for the production of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel has been the play of centre Tyler Bozak. For all of the stats that have been thrown around with the Lupul-Kessel duo and their production, it seems to have been overlooked that the man consistently between them has been Bozak, and that his play impacts the Kessel and Lupul as much as their chemistry alone does. The fact that his play and production have gone so under the radar while teammates soak up the attention makes me wonder – has Tyler Bozak finally become the top six player he was expected to be?
Coming out of the University of Denver, Bozak was hailed as a two-way player with loads of skill by Joe Nieuwendyk and the rest of Leafs brass. His first goal showcased that and Ole-Kristian Tollefson is still looking for his jockstrap three years later. Last year was seen as a big step backward for Bozak as he failed to develop any sort of chemistry with Kessel, Kris Versteeg and virtually any other player he was paired with. He looked generally out of sorts on the ice away from the faceoff dot and the he only recorded five more points in 82 games than he did his rookie season in 37. Yikes.
Heading into this year Bozak was generally seen as an afterthought and became trade bait in everyone’s mind the day Toronto acquired David Steckel. The Leafs don’t need more guys who can’t score and Steckel is better at what Bozak is good at than Bozak is – therefore there’s no room for you here, sorry. Tyler has responded this year with much more confident play in both ends of the ice. His faceoffs have been a bright spot as usual, his backchecking has been more noticeable if not very effective and his play down low in the offensive zone has improved. Kessel also appears to be much more comfortable on the ice with Bozak playing down the middle than with Tim Connolly. All of this leads me to believe that Bozak has finally taken that step and can finally be termed an adequate top six guy. Obviously it speaks to the fact that the Leafs have room to grow that Bozak is still earning first line minutes – on a Vancouver, Pittsburgh or Chicago he is a third line player – but I maintain that any team could pencil him into the top half of their lineup and not cover their eyes.
Bozak showed off his playmaking ability tonight with a fantastic backhanded saucer pass to spring Matthew Lombardi. Say what you will about Lombardi’s finishing move being the real highlight here, but most players don’t get him this scoring opportunity.
What say you Backhand Shelfers? If you were constructing your own team under the cap, do you think you’d be happy with Bozak holding down a top six spot?