Among the many moves that the St. Louis Blues made on the first day of free agency, the addition of Tyler Bozak at center is one that should not be overlooked. Perhaps overshadowed by the massive trade for Ryan O’Reilly, Bozak’s arrival in St. Louis will turn what had been one of the Blues’ biggest weaknesses into perhaps their greatest strength.
A Career in Toronto
It is rare in the NHL these days for a role player to spend his entire career with one team, but that is what Bozak had done before this year. Though Bozak went undrafted, a strong career in college at the University of Denver made him a hotly pursued free agent, and he would go on to sign in 2008 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite having recently sustained a serious knee injury. After a year-plus of rehabilitating and training for the NHL level, Bozak made his debut in the 2009-10 season, posting an impressive 27 points in 37 games.
Bozak would continue to perform at a high level, posting a half point or more per game pace each of the next eight seasons. He would spend all eight of those seasons in Toronto, ultimately becoming the Maple Leafs’ longest-tenured player until departing in free agency this year. Bozak played a responsible game and was multi-faceted, he won face-offs well (something the Blues desperately needed) and could score goals with some regularity, even potting 23 in 2014-15. So integral was Bozak to what the Maple Leafs had built that even with a blossoming young core that is likely to get more and more expensive in the coming years, some argued that the Maple Leafs should still retain the 32-year-old center.
A New Home for Bozak
Not able to hammer out a deal to stay in Toronto, Bozak hit unrestricted free agency as one of the better available centers (behind John Tavares and Paul Stastny). Bozak would find his new home with the St. Louis Blues on a three year, $15 million contract. A presumptive replacement for the aforementioned Stastny, whom the Blues traded to Winnipeg at the deadline last season, Bozak joined a center group of Brayden Schenn and much-lauded rookie prospect Robert Thomas.
As mentioned, Bozak brings much of what the Blues need. He wins face-offs, at a career rate of 53.6%, he plays physically but intelligently, he offers leadership, experience, and versatility. Moreover, he is a right-handed shot, which was something of a rarity in the Blues’ lineup last season. But many Blues fans worried whether Bozak was the caliber of player who could adequately replace Paul Stastny as the Blues’ No. 2 center.
But fans quickly realized that would not be Bozak’s role, as news arrived later that night that the team had acquired center Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a haul of picks, a prospect, and two roster players. With O’Reilly and Schenn (and eventually Thomas) prepared to fill higher line roles, Bozak should be allowed to slot in as a third line center, a position best suited for his skill set. There, Bozak should prove to be an incredible asset for the Blues.
Big Plans in St. Louis
Having spent nine years in one city, playing for one team and its fans, it was only natural for Tyler Bozak to wrestle with some emotions upon leaving, and, as players who leave longtime homes often do, he took to the Players’ Tribune to express those emotions. But Bozak didn’t hesitate to leave some column inches for his new home, either. And what he offered Blues’ fans was a glimpse into his ambitions with his new team:
“…Even though I was fortunate enough to accomplish some great things in Toronto, I never got the one thing I’ve always really wanted. The Stanley Cup. I want to win a Cup. So damn bad. That’s why I signed in St. Louis. There’s your headline. Print it.”
Bozak wants what every player wants, an opportunity at hockey’s greatest prize, the Stanley Cup, a prize neither the Maple Leafs nor the Blues have won in over fifty years. And Bozak, like his close friend Phil Kessel, hopes that in leaving Toronto, he will find Stanley Cup success.
A New Age for the Blues?
Only time will tell whether Bozak’s tenure with the Blues will yield a Stanley Cup. But the very fact that Bozak tabbed the Blues as a contender should excite fans. Bozak no doubt had other offers from other teams, but he chose to come to St. Louis, and be part of their impressive group of forwards, one that now includes three new centers in himself, O’Reilly, and Thomas.
Are the Blues guaranteed a Cup? By no means. But, contenders are built on strong defense and impressive center play, and those are two things the Blues now have in spades. Blues fans have plenty to be excited about, and one thing is for certain: if you can win a Stanley Cup on willpower alone, Tyler Bozak and his teammates could be lifting it at center ice in the Enterprise Center for the very first time.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.