How many draws did Bozak win on Friday night, like maybe his first ten or so? It was a small window into the impact that the young pivot has had more often than not in games so far during the 2011-’12 season. One night it’s taking on the task of checking a good offensive center on the other team; another it's being on the ice in the dying seconds while protecting a lead, or scoring a key goal during a Leaf comeback.
Against the Islanders, it was not only his work on face-offs but also his sweet play to set up Crabb for a huge short-handed goal in second period to restore the Leafs’ two-goal lead—one they would never relinquish.
That play worked on a number of levels, besides being another example of Bozak’s often inspired (and more assertive) play with the Leafs this season. First, it halted the bleeding on the Leaf penalty kill, after the Islanders had knocked home a power-play marker to make it a one-goal game early in the second period. But maybe more importantly, it gave the Leafs back that two-goal cushion—and deflated the Islanders while boosting the Leafs’ psyche.
I posted on Bozak not long ago (click here) because I see in his development something we have no doubt all witnessed a number of times over the years with different young Leafs (and players from other organizations, too, of course).
That is, most players—those who aren’t in classic elite superstar mold, those rare guys who seem to slip seamlessly into a first-line role offensively or a top pairing on the blueline—need to broaden their game pretty quickly. If they are ”goal scorers”, for example, the coaching staff will often demand that they work on defense. (Kadri being a classic current example in Toronto.) It’s not enough to simply rely forever on what made you stand out in junior hockey. Players may have to get bigger, stronger and quicker in most cases to keep up here. They are expected to play hard in all zones of the ice and cut down on costly turnovers. All this is drilled into them so that, ultimately, they can thrive and become a sound all-around player in the best league in the world.
Bottom line, it generally takes time to keep meeting the challenge of higher expectations, broader coaching demands and the relentless reality of the outstanding everyday opposition they face pretty much every night at this level. It takes time for a player to achieve that balance of confidence, maturity—along with the wisdom acquired through the ups and downs of extensive game-experience—that is required to play to their potential.
For Bozak, it has meant (after a surprising and promising rookie season out of college) a somewhat un-fulfilling sophomore season a year ago, when he was a square peg pushed prematurely into a round hole on the Leaf “number-one” line—such as it was last season.
But now in year three, he is an imperfect player, yes, but one showing he has picked up some important things along the way. Importantly for me, he has shown a knack for not getting down on himself and just working hard to get better. And better he has gotten, in ways large and small.
I like his all-around game, and this is one guy I feel good about trumpeting, because I have said here many times (especially last season when he was seen to be struggling, including with an un-impressive plus-minus total) that he had and has more to give. I like his skill, his hands, how he sees the ice, and I like that he did not let the criticism he must have heard last season slow his determination—or his progress.
Pretty much, I like that he is good now and should only get better. He is a young player, like Frattin, who has a higher ceiling than what we are seeing now, and can be an important player when the Leafs are really good.
Warm wishes for a Merry Christmas to all those who have taken the time to visit the “Vintage Leaf Memories” site. I appreciate the many thoughtful comments, your feedback and value your support and the broad readership here. I hope to hear from some of you.