Those who drop by here fairly regularly will know that I enjoy chatting about Leaf teams present—and past. A particular favorite is talking about either the 1970-’71 Leaf squad (really young defense, with Ley, Dorey, McKenny etc. and some outstanding veterans up front like Ullman, Ellis, Keon, Henderson). I also really liked the mid and later ‘70s teams built around Borje Salming and two outstanding power forwards: winger Lanny McDonald, along with captain and team leader, Darryl Sittler.
With that as a backdrop and historical reminder, I tend (probably too much) to look at players today, especially young Leafs, through the prism of what came before them.
Both Sittler and McDonald took a few years (not surprisingly, despite being high first-round draft choice in 1970 and 1973 respectively) to mature and become the players they ultimately grew to be. Both carved out (despite only one Cup between them over fairly lengthy careers) Hall-of-Fame-worthy achievements.
Both could play physically and were tough as nails, as the expression goes. They played together on the same line in their prime Toronto years, when both were young and at the top of their all-around game. I always remember McDonald absolutely blossoming in his third season. He had been a big scorer in junior hockey with Medicine Hat, but struggled in his first two plus seasons to score consistently. Yet I could see that, as his third full season progressed, he started bulling his way around defensemen, holding on to the puck and staying on his feet more while still playing a physical style. On successive Saturday nights at the Gardens, (I remember like it was yesterday) he knocked Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin ass-over-tea kettle with big-time hip checks as they were carrying the puck out of their own zones. From there, his confidence grew, the shots started to go in, instead of just a bit high or wide—and Lanny was on his way.
Sittler, too, just kept getting better and better, as he got stronger and grew into a real leadership role with the blue and white. (Their time in Toronto eventually ended sadly after Punch Imlach’s return, but I’ve touched on that before here and that’s a story for another day.)
Suffice to say that, even though both were top draft picks and expected to produce right away, it took some time. And that’s what I’m seeing now with two promising young Leafs, Tyler Bozak and Matt Frattin.
As “college guys”, Frattin and Bozak took a longer and different route to get to the NHL than Sittler and McDonald. Frattin was a Ferguson Jr. pick in the summer of ’07, but opted to play in college. Bozak also focused on college hockey while in school before signing as a free-agent with the Leafs-a Burke initiative.
Bozak gets a little stronger each season. We all (most of us, anyway) jumped on the Bozie bandwagon in his surprising rookie year. An undrafted college free-agent signing, he showed smarts, a nice passing touch and a deft ability in the face-off dot.
Of course, he was thrust into the top-line center position last year, too soon for him and a stretch in terms of team personnel-placement decisions. But he survived and likely learned a lot along the way.
Not surprisingly, expectations for Bozak were heavily deflated coming into camp this year, and now he is far from hurting the team wherever he is in the line-up, including anchoring Kessel and Bozak a lot of the time (at least to this point in the season).
He is hitting guys- hard. He still does OK on draws, and makes sweet passes. He is finishing enough to make himself that much more valuable offensively.
For his part, Frattin is showing the skill set that Ferguson's scouts liked a few years ago. Despite being a normal size for players nowadays, he has power-forward written all over him—a guy with surprising speed and a power burst that makes me think he will only get better as he learns to use his size, strength and quickness even more.
I’ve commented here before that I love his ability to drive around defensemen- including on his off-wing. That’s not a skill everyone possesses, but he seems to have it. I just think he has a nice combination of skills, and while he isn’t an 18-year old kid (he’ll be 24 in a couple of weeks), in two seasons from now he should be a bona fide NHL winger, maybe even a star.
Yes, it takes time. It almost always does. I know Bozak has likely be a part of Leaf trade talks, and may continue to be. But if I had to guess, two of the guys that will be core pieces up front for this organization going forward will be Tyler Bozak and Matt Frattin.