Playing for the University of Denver out of the WCHA, Tyler Bozak did enough to catch the attention of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and his staff of amateur scouts, resulting in Burke signing the undrafted Bozak to a healthy contract.
At the time of the signing, many felt Bozak could immediately step into an NHL lineup. After 32 games of seasoning in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies, Bozak proved his worth by posting eight goals and 27 points through 37 games in the 2009-10 season.
With a decent start to his NHL career, expectations rose exponentially for Bozak. Void of a legitimate No. 1 center to start the 2010-11 season, Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson had little choice but to catapult Bozak into the first-line center’s role.
On a line with Phil Kessel and a revolving door of left wingers, Bozak failed to impress early on, causing Wilson to re-evaluate Bozak. At the end of the day, Bozak has seen himself playing on every conceivable line with a multitude of linemates, which has contributed to his overall struggles.
Through 66 games, Bozak has amassed a total 10 goals and 24 points, which given the way he has been spread around this season, is not too bad.
Bozak’s faceoff abilities are well documented and at a 54.5 percent success rate, there aren’t many NHL players who do it any better than Bozak.
That said, the issue for Bozak is his plus/minus rating of minus-25 which ranks 853rd in the NHL. Outside of a trio of Ottawa Senators players (Chris Phillips minus-26, Filip Kuba minus-28, Erik Karlsson minus-34), it is the worst in the league.
Playing an average of 19:26 minutes per game, in many people’s minds Bozak has been asked to contribute too much, too soon.
In listening to fans discuss Bozak’s recent play, many of them point to Bozak’s improvement defensively and his competitiveness level, which has never been questioned. Trouble is, over the past 20 games, Bozak has emerged with emerged with a minus-two rating a total of six times.
Therefore, while fans would love to believe Bozak’s defensive prowess is there, the evidence is not there to support their findings.
Of those 20 games, Bozak emerged as a plus player a total of three times while emerging “even” a total of six times. Simply put, that’s just not good enough for a player of Bozak’s ilk, which leads one to believe that his future with the Maple Leafs may be in question.
Short on NHL-ready center’s throughout the organization, Brian Burke has a tough decision to make where Bozak (who just happens to be a restricted free agent this summer) is concerned.
Bozak currently carries a cap-hit of $3.72 million, representing an $875,000 NHL salary, $2.85 million in player bonuses and $87,500 in signing bonuses.
Given the Maple Leafs lack of depth at the center position, going forward the question for Brian Burke may not be whether or not he wants Bozak in the lineup, but rather how much he is willing to pay. $3.72 million for a player on pace for 30 points is ludicrous, but what is Bozak worth?
This summer, several capable free agents may emerge as legitimate candidates to fill Bozak’s position, including the likes of Scottie Upshall, Brooks Laich and Chad Larose—none of whom are natural centers.
With little help via free agency, Burke will have to rely on one of his prized prospects stepping up or revert to re-signing Bozak.
The most plausible outcome is a short-term deal for Bozak, designed to allow the youngster to find his game and for Burke to save face should Bozak continue to falter.
Anything longer than a two-year deal seems unlikely and a contract in the $1.5 million per season range would seen to be on point.
There is no question Bozak has talent, and no question about his attitude (which is great). The question for Burke is determining whether or not Bozak has already reached his peek or if the youngster still has it in him to be an effective bottom six forward.
A decision on Bozak is only one of a long line of offseason questions Burke must answer—one that is just as important as the next in many people’s eyes.
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