Is the Toronto Maple Leafs' Tyler Bozak a No. 1 Centre?

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIMay 5, 2014

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 1: Tyler Bozak #42 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates during NHL game action against the Calgary Flames April 1, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

If you want to start a heated conversation with any red-blooded Toronto Maple Leafs fan, mention either Tyler Bozak or captain Dion Phaneuf.

While more vitriol and expletives are likely to be spewed about Phaneuf, Bozak's value to the club is debated continuously by the rabid Toronto fanbase.

In some ways, the discussion around Bozak as a No. 1 centre is moot. Until he is supplanted, he's got the job and the Regina, Saskatchewan, native should make no apologies for occupying what is a highly coveted NHL role.

MONTREAL - 1980's:  Darryl Sittler #27 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates before the game against the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

From Syl Apps to Dave Keon to Darryl Sittler to Mats Sundin, the Leafs boast a wonderful history of All-Star centres over the past 80 NHL seasons.

With just four full seasons of NHL play under his belt that have seen him earn 183 points in 296 games, Bozak is nowhere near any of these aforementioned stars. It doesn't seem as though he's on a trajectory to become a perennial All-Star capable of generating Hall of Fame-worthy numbers in his career.

Bozak ranked an underwhelming 42nd in NHL scoring among centres in 2013-14. However, he did earn his 49 points in just 58 games. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Bozak posted 28 points in 46 games, which put him in 40th spot among NHL centres in scoring.

By these metrics, it would seem quite clear that Bozak is undeserving of his status as a No. 1 centre with what has been a reasonably competitive NHL team over the past two seasons.

Of course, on the defensively challenged Leafs, his duties have extended way beyond just points.

He's played most of the time with the young and skilled James van Riemsdyk and the uber-talented Phil Kessel, who both tend to focus on the offensive side of the game.

In other words, Bozak has had to serve as the defensive conscience for the Leafs' top line for the past few seasons.

In terms of his defensive play, the basic plus/minus stats indicate that Bozak has done an adequate job in his defensive work. Over the past three seasons, Bozak is minus-six on a Leafs team that has been badly outshot and outscored over that time.

Much of his work has been against other top lines and top defenders. Because the Leafs' secondary scoring has been limited at best recently, teams have been able to key on the JVR-Bozak-Kessel line on most nights.

In 2013-14, Bozak's five-on-five Corsi percentage was 42.9 percent. However, his relative Corsi percentage of plus-0.2 suggests that his possession stats were better than the team average for the season.

It is also clear that Bozak shouldered a heavy defensive burden both in terms of zone starts (sixth-lowest zone start percentage) and quality of competition (highest on the team).

What this indicates is that Bozak, while not an offensive juggernaut, is a pretty adequate defensive centre who would likely be an above-average second-line NHL pivot on most teams.

The issue then becomes situational in that Nazem Kadri does not appear ready to be a first-line NHL centre at this stage of his career. While he likely has more offensive upside, his two-way game needs a lot of work in order for him to play against other teams' top lines and defenders.

Additionally, it doesn't appear that the Leafs have a first-line centre in their prospects pool either.

While the club has the eighth pick in the upcoming 2014 NHL draft, the chances are not great that they will land a first-line centreand certainly not for next season if they happen to hit the jackpot by drafting a future star centre.

Compounding this is the fact that the Leafs' salary-cap issues are well-known.

With centre Paul Stastny as the only real option for filling a No. 1 role out of this year's crop of unrestricted free agents, it would seem like a stretch for the Leafs to be able to pursue him without some significant roster moves.

In considering all of this, Bozak is not a "real" No. 1 centre. Nevertheless, a lot of teams are without this type of player currently.

While clubs like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins arguably have two No. 1 centres, other teams like the Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Phoenix Coyotes don't have a bona fide, dominant No. 1 pivot.

Some teams can enjoy success without a top centre, but if you have a workhorse like Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar or Ryan Getzlaf in the fold, NHL life is much easier.

Most of the top teams can boast a relatively strong presence down the middle.

Bozak isn't in the upper echelon of No. 1 centres, but he's going to have to do for the foreseeable future in Toronto.


Basic stats can be found on Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.