He was a skinny, five-foot-nine 18-year-old on the bubble for the 2004-2005 version of the Junior A Victoria Salsa. You should know in the intervening years the Salsa refashioned themselves as the Victoria Grizzlies.
That fits. Tyler Bozak knows something about the elements that go into an overhaul.
“The NHL seemed the furthest away my first year in Victoria,” he said in a recent interview. “I went for a tryout and I was an undersized guy. I wasn’t even sure I was going to make the team and while I did I didn’t play much in the first half of the year. We got a new coach and he started to play me a little bit and things turned around from there.”
It is easy, although nowhere near as easy of late, to overlook Tyler Bozak.
As the Leafs ride a four game winning into to Phoenix for a date with the Coyotes Monday night, (the Leafs also play in Colorado, Dallas and Winnipeg on the trip) Bozak has emerged as one of the club’s most effective players
It was Bozak’s ability to fight off Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov and unleash a splendid saucer pass that set up James van Riemsdyk for the winning goal in Saturday’s 5-3 win over Montreal. Bozak scored the shootout winning goal to beat Buffalo, scored twice in the Leafs win over Boston and scored a goal and added the shootout winner in the Winter Classic.
So why is Tyler Bozak such a consternation for Leafs fans who, with Jonathan Bernier ensconced in the Leafs net will put the acquisition of a number centre at the top of their wish list?
Maybe its because he mans a position in which prolific offence is expected (the top three scorers in the NHL, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf all play the middle). Maybe its because he fell through the cracks of the NHL scouting system and came to Toronto as a 23-year-old from the crapshoot that is the college free agent market. Perhaps there remains in Toronto a Mats Sundin hangover, a pang for a player with the size and skill to grab a game and shake it.
Coach Randy Carlyle’s advice? Quit wishing for what you haven’t got.
“Every hockey player would like to be six-foot-four and 240 pounds and do what big men do,” Carlyle said. “It doesn’t work that way. Bozie has the skill set, the body makeup and tools to be a real good hockey player. We’ll take the hockey sense and the hockey smarts and his prowess on the draws, his offensive abilities and try to utilize him in as many situations as possible.”
Tyler Bozak will always inspire debate, none more pitched than when the Leafs signed the 26-year-old to a five-year contract this summer.
If he is so valuable, critics will argue, why are the Leafs 12-12-2 with him in the lineup this season? How can a top-line player have recorded only 16 assists in 46 games last year playing between two players, Van Riemsdyk and Kessel, who scored 42 goals between them?
Then again, why did Kessel and van Riemsdyk manage a piddly two goals and three goals in the 12 December games Bozak missed with injury? And how much of their offence is built on Bozak’s willingness to be the first forward in and last forward out of the defensive zone?
Some things defy easy explanation. You understood Bozak’s value in Game 7 in Boston when the Leafs had no one to stop the parade of easy Boston face-off wins.
“There’s no one out there I would rather be taking a draw in a key part of the game,” said Leafs’ goalie James Reimer. “He plays first power play and first PK, those guys are pretty rare. He’s talented, he works hard and he cares. That’s all I want from a number one centre.”
For his part, Bozak is unfazed by the debate.
“I think in Toronto it’s pretty important to have a pretty thick skin,” he said. There’s going to be people who like you and people who don’t like you. You have to take it with a grain of salt and do the best you can.”