Tyler Bozak is the 28 year old 6’1″, 195 lb center who has received his fair share of criticism since becoming a Leaf in 2009. Number 42 for the Maple Leafs was never drafted, but was still a sought after free agent during the 2008-2009 off-season. Bozak played college hockey instead of junior, which is one reason he may not have been drafted as college players are more likely to be overlooked. Regardless, after signing his first ever pro contract with the Maple Leafs, a 23 year old Bozak came to camp as a rookie with high expectations.
Bozak had a good training camp during his first season with the Leafs, however, due to cap issues (or also possibly because he was fighting crime) Bozak was not able to start the season with the Leafs. Bozak eventually worked his way into the lineup and was able to put up 27 points in 37 games during the 2009-2010 regular season. Since then he has consistently increased his value as a player. Nobody in hockey disputes whether or not Tyler Bozak is an NHL caliber center, the debate is whether or not he is best suited to be a
caped crusader first line center in the NHL.
What makes someone a capable first line center? There is no rules barring any type of player to be played in that position. However, the elite prototypical first line center in the modern NHL is one that is big, strong, fast, great offensively and defensively. There are few players in the NHL who possess all of those skills in spades. The argument can even be made based of those criteria Sidney Crosby, the best player in the game is not a prototypical first line center because of his size! Obviously no one would say that Crosby is not a capable first line center because he excels in every aspect of the game despite his size. The point is that a player does not need to be a prototypical first line center in order to be a successful one.
It is also obvious that Bozak is not as gifted as Crosby offensivley, he is not as big and strong as Ryan Getzlaf and he is not as good defensively as Jonathan Toews. What Bozak may lack in any specific area, he makes up for by being a well rounded player across the board. Bozak has even made huge improvements offensively, an area of his game he has been criticized for, putting up 67 points in his last 82 games. If he can continue that pace for a full season he would rank about 15th in points for centers based off of the 2013-2014 regular season stats. He also does not often get over powered in the corners, or make defensive mistakes that end up in the back of the net. He may not have near superhuman abilities like Crosby or Stamkos, but he still finds a way to get the job done, not unlike a certain man who often resembles a bat. Bozak may also be unfairly criticized because the last bonafide number one center for the Leafs was possibly the most talented player of franchise history in Mats Sundin.
Another reason why Bozak may be the number one center is because of the chemistry he has with Phil Kessel. The two seemingly had instant chemistry when they were first paired together in the 2009 season. They also have complimentary strengths which allow them to cover for each others shortcomings. So even though it may have been a matter of Bozak falling into the position by default at the time they, along with the more recently added James van Riemsdyk, have become one of the most offensively dangerous lines in the NHL. Basically, it seems that the best offensive player on the Leafs is at his best when he plays with Bozak. Additionally many feel as though one of the reasons Kessel stayed in Toronto was so he could play with Bozak, his best friend and roommate.
Beyond chemistry with Kessel, Bozak may also play on the top line because the Leafs do not currently have a better option within the organization. The only other center who could currently contend with Bozak for the top line center position is Nazem Kadri. Kadri is typically regarded as being the better center offensively and during times when Kadri has been used with Kessel, the two have played reasonably well together.
The reason the coaching staff may choose to keep Kadri and Kessel apart could be Kadri’s defensive game. The offensive game has always been there for Kadri but his defensive play has been a source of criticism throughout his career. When you consider that defensive play is also at times something Kessel is criticized for, that may be reason enough to keep the two apart. Additionally, the Leafs may favor Bozak because he tends to fare better in the faceoff circle than Kadri. If Kadri rounds out his game defensively and increases his face off percentage, the Leafs may consider giving him the opportunity to take Bozak’s spot. Until then Bozak seems to be the best option.
Bozak may be the center Toronto deserves, but maybe they do not need him to be that yet. Maybe the media will continue to criticize him, and maybe he can take it. Maybe Tyler Bozak will never be a hero for the Leafs, immortalized on Legends Row. But maybe he will, maybe he truly is the Blue Knight.
Cover Photo Credit: Tyler Bozak image (Claus Andersen/Getty Images) Batman Image (Warner Bros. Pictures)