The Toronto Maple Leafs are loaded with talent, and I feel like the team isn’t far off from getting over the hump. Adding complementary pieces that can fill a role and do it well goes a long way for a team’s success, especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs when players have to buy in more than ever. When the Maple Leafs look to sign some secondary support this summer, they should consider bringing back Tyler Bozak to center the team’s third line.
General manager Kyle Dubas is always one step ahead of the game, and has long thought out the free-agent targets for his team. The finances always play a major part in the business and it’s obvious the Leafs don’t have a ton of money to spend this offseason. Bozak made $5 million this past season, and is set to make much less in 2021-22 after recording just 17 points in 31 games. Perhaps the two sides could work out a two-year deal and have the extra year lessen the salary cap hit?
It’s likely Bozak could receive a bit more money from other teams, but it’s going to come down to his interest level in heading back to Toronto, and an extra year could be an interesting gamble for Dubas. Should Bozak believe in the core of this team and want a second crack at playoff success in blue and white, then the Denver University product signs on the dotted line.
Bozak spent nine seasons as a Maple Leaf after being signed in 2009 as an undrafted NCAA free agent. Brian Burke was general manager of the team at the time and was absolutely thrilled to put pen to paper. Burke raved about the college kid being a responsible center who could flourish at both ends of the ice and was over the moon the player chose the Leafs.
In his rookie season as a 23-year-old, Bozak tallied 27 points in 37 games and sparked some chemistry with Burke’s prized acquisition, Phil Kessel. The two became best buds, and the rest is history – just ask ex-head coach Randy Carlyle.
Kessel went on to do nothing but score goals for five more seasons in Toronto, and Bozak did everything he could to feed Phil the puck. While he was arguably the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 center for half a decade, Bozak won’t need to take on that role on the 2021-22 team, and would instead find himself on the team’s third-line, loaded with defensive responsibilities. With Auston Matthews becoming good enough defensively to handle mostly anyone in the league night in and night out, head coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t need to hide him by any means. However, if you can add a center who is thinking nothing but being a ‘defense-first’ type of forward, it’s going to make life easier for everyone. Matthews, John Tavares, Bozak and a surging Adam Brooks are a capable group down the middle and stack up reasonably in the Eastern Conference.
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Dubas and company made two trades with the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to the trade deadline, and one was for Riley Nash. The 32-year-old was brought in even though he was rehabbing a knee injury as an option to win some faceoffs and kill penalties. The long-shot experiment didn’t work out, and Nash only ended up appearing in two games. Ideally, he would have inserted himself into the Leafs’ lineup and become their go-to shut-down center for a long playoff run. As we now know, nothing remotely close to that happened.
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With Bozak, the Leafs get back a familiar face who wins a ton of draws. Last season, he won 56.7% of his faceoffs, good for 12th in the entire NHL. Throw in Jason Spezza at 10th in the league, and Tavares at 24th, and the Leafs would be the only team in the league with three names in the top-25 in faceoff percentage from last season. They say the game’s easier if you start with the puck.
At 35 years old, Bozak isn’t the fastest skater, but he never really has been. He’s always used his hockey IQ, positioning, and instincts to gain an advantage. That wouldn’t change and has less to do with being the fastest skater from point A to point B and more to do with being a step ahead up-top. Going undrafted and playing almost 800 games and counting in the league says something about a player’s smarts, resilience, and character. He’s always been a team guy and Bozak would fit in seamlessly with this Maple Leafs group.
Dubas May Shy Away From Aging Veterans After Last Offseason
After a let-down acquisition with the Joe Thornton signing, Bozak (who will be 36 at the start of next season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs) could be someone Maple Leafs’ management votes against this time around. Bozak has never played on the same team with Matthews and Tavares as the No. 3 option, but this type of addition, if priced right, is a transaction Dubas should consider.
The Maple Leafs are a storied franchise that takes care of their alumni better than most teams in the league. Throw in a second visit and some playoff success, and Bozak could find his name climb Leafs Nation’s list of favorites. Unfortunately for the adoring fans, they have don’t have much say in the matter.
Shane covers any and everything to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor to the THW family, his passion and unique perspective on the game results in some diverse content. Certainly versatile, you can find Seney also contributing at NHLTradeRumors.me, BaseballRumors.me & BBallRumors.com. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween