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And the most impactful Leaf player just might be….

The difference in between sky-high optimism and near despair in Leafland can be a thin line, indeed.  Fans are understandably excited that the good guys have won their last two games, but a bounce here or there and the Leafs could instead be on a five-game losing streak and the mood would be rather different, I suspect.  (Of course, the Leafs have gone to overtime in four of the five games since the Olympics, so in my old-fashioned view, they really have a single loss and four ties in that stretch. Regular-season "wins" and "losses" in overtime are fundamentally misleading.)

Just a few days ago I posted that I was looking to see more from Kadri and Gardiner. Not that they, at 23 should carry an unfair burden on their young shoulders, simply that I was looking to see a bit more in terms of compete and defensive accountability on a consistent basis.  (I'm sure everyone has their own view as to whether their play has been what you want to see from precociously talented youngsters still growing into their NHL careers.)

That said, what I’m mostly thinking ahead to these days is, well, the playoffs.  And once you get there, a team needs the usual assortment of ingredients to make any headway: netminding, strong special teams play, leadership, timely goals, luck...and lots and lots of grit.

While hockey has forever been a team game, successful playoff teams generally also need individual players who will be impact guys.  Yes, teams always need those under-the-radar, ‘no-name’ contributors who come up surprisingly big when it matters most.  But bottom line, you don’t win without impact players. They don’t have to carry a team on their back, but they do have to make a difference out there at key moments.

So when I look at this roster, I see a number of players who could potentially fit that 'impact' bill.  Bernier, for sure.  Kessel, Lupul and van Riemsdyk, obviously.  Kadri can make a huge difference when he plays as he can. And as I wrote at the beginning of the season, it may well be that the one player the Leafs could least afford to lose for any length of time is the captain, Phaneuf. We have lots of blueline “depth” in numbers, but I’m not sure (well, yes I am, actually- we don't) we have anyone who could as effectively take on his responsibility—and minutes.

But you know what’s interesting to me?  The name that keeps coming back to me as the one player who, right now, just may be the individual who has the biggest influence on the overall success of this team may well be Tyler Bozak. 

Why do I say this?  I guess it comes down to the fact that they are just that much better with him in the lineup.  Because he is a go-to guy for Carlyle, Bozak plays at key moments. The coach obviously has confidence in him.  There is a comfort factor there for Carlyle when Bozak is on the ice.

To me it is very evident now, if it wasn’t before, that he helps Kessel almost as much as Kessel helps him. The team’s record with Bozak in the lineup (I don’t have the stats in front of me, but it's a hunch) feels like it’s a lot better than when he has been out with an injury.

That no-look, behind-the-back pass a few games ago was one of those moments that resonated with me.  It was a “skill” play generally associated with pretty elite players. (Denis Savard in his hey-day with the Blackhawks comes to mind.)  I know the pass could just as easily have been picked off, leading to a turnover and a scoring chance against us.  But somehow Bozak found Kessel just at the moment that the Leaf 'finisher' was about to be in flight.  The defensemen had no chance as Kessel sped in and scored without breaking stride. 

That’s the sudden-strike offense that this team potentially has—a team that has been chronically outshot and out-chanced almost all season, and yet they win more than they lose. A lot of that has to do with the explosive abilities of our top line.

And despite all the consternation and all the criticism around him in Leafworld, the guy who makes it all go, the catalyst, is Bozak.

I write this the day after Bozak had maybe his most un-imposing night of the season. He won 43% of his face-offs (if I can believe that game sheet), did not generate a point for his line and found a way to be on the ice for all three Flyer goals (the only goals they scored) in the Leafs’ 4-3 overtime victory.

But despite that one game blip, the season-long visual evidence has mounted sufficiently for me to believe he is one of a very few Leafs who are indispensible at this juncture. While many players have contributed to the Leafs reaching 76 points (fourth overall in the Eastern Conference standings, and if they win their game in hand, third place)—from Lupul to Rielly to Gunnarsson to Kadri, Kulemin and the in and out fourth liners—Toronto’s first liners remain the triggermen, the momentum changers. They are the ones who invariably lead those third period comebacks, who create offense out of nothing as well as create fear and chaos in the opposition’s zone. The line can survive without Bozak, sure, but when he’s out, the rollover effect on the rest of the lines is measurable.

Yes, it appears that the Leafs do indeed need Bozak healthy and playing his quiet, all-around, ‘he’s not a true first-line center’ game just the way he does most nights.  And they will need that in April and May, too, when impact players, regardless of their reputation, are so valuable.

We will need all on hands on deck to be sure, but if the Leafs harbour serious ambitions of doing something they haven't done in a decade - win a playoff round, and maybe more, in the spring - Bozak will be key.



25 comments:

  1. It's great to see some Bozak love! I've been in his corner for a couple of years now - mainly because I think he's improved every year. That backhand pass you refer to was a bit of hockey heaven, but it comes from linemates developing the kind of intuition that only comes from playing together. (We saw the same thing from Marty St Louis and Brad Richards when they were reunited in New York the other day).
    I certainly agree about the need for impact players in the playoffs - Gary Roberts comes to mind - and we're going to need contributions from someone other than our first-liners if we make the playoffs. (And to glass half-full O'Malley, that's still "if"). I'd make a case for Lupul - he's the kind of scorer that, should he get hot, could really tip the balance in the Leafs' favour. I also have a hunch we'll be seeing James Reimer make a significant contribution somewhere along the line.

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    1. You're absolutely right about Lupul, Gerund O'- he is precisely the kind of player that can come through in the clutch, and take pressure of the top line.

      (By the way, I think the O'Malley glass will be teetering until the end, Gerund!)

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  2. I have said it before, but I think Bozak is Patrice Bergeron light...less filling, but still great. I think the comparison isn't so silly anymore.

    However, if there is going to be success this spring I think its going to be all 11-12 forwards that get it done. Even some of the better teams don't have an equal amount of lines and forwards that can score. JVR, Bozak Kessel is among the top lines in the league. Kulemin, Kadri and Lupul look like a very good second line as we saw last night. Raymond, Bolland and Clarkson has worked before, lets hope they are ready to be a good third line in 4 weeks.

    The kicker, might be the guys on our 4th line. as we saw last night, Holland has some chemistry with Bodie. On some teams, Holland might be a second line center. Bodie certainly looks like a capable third line winger. A fourth line of Bodie, Holland and McClement might be the thing that puts us over the top.

    How many teams would have the luxury of having a guy like Holland center the fourth line?

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    1. The depth is there, DP, maybe even without Bolland.

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  3. I must admit, I am not feeling quite as rosy as my esteemed fellow commenters.

    The telling line in your post, Michael, that rang very true for me was "The line can survive without Bozak, sure, but when he’s out, the rollover effect on the rest of the lines is measurable" as I see that as (a) being absolutely right, but also (b) contradictory to DP's post lauding our depth at centre. Bozak's contributions to the top line since his return from injury are clear and extremely gratifying but I doubt he'd make a first line for any team even vaguely playoff-bound in the League: the understanding he has with Kessel is his forte and while that's great for us, it doesn't make him that great a player I believe.

    Bozak, Kadri, Bolland - they're all journeyman to my mind and you're right Michael, one's absence means the rest are out of their depth. Holland has been interesting but isn't ready to step up just yet either. McClement's got his role, but one involving no offensive upside.

    So basically my position is: loving how well Bozak is playing with Kessel and JvR but I'd trade him in a heartbeat if it meant getting a true 1C.

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    1. I always hope that my posts will generate some worthwhile discussion, and you have helped with that today, KiwiLeaf.

      Bozak is a very good NHL player- or at least he has certainly played, I think, beyond what most fans would have projected for him a few years ago. Is he a "true" first-line NHL centre? Maybe not, as you suggest, on most other NHL teams. But as currently constituted, he seems to play that role effectively for the most part with the Leafs.

      I always respect DP's views on this, and he helps to counter the perspectives that tend to focus on what the Leafs don't have. I am in the middle on this one: strength down the middle is crucial, and Kadri, Bolland, Bozak and McClement can compete, but I'm not sure anyone outside of Toronto would see them as formidable. Like you, I see Holland as interesting, but nowhere near demonstrating he is an integral piece going forward. Thanks KiwiLeaf.

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    2. The one thing to understand about my views: I am setting the bar lower than most people in terms of results. I'm not measuring this in terms of a Stanley Cup.

      Last year, I thought we should get into he playoffs and we did.

      This is the year when I think we should be able to get a decent first round match up (not Boston) and win a round.

      Maybe we get lucky against a team that gets beat up..and win a second round and get slaughted after that. That's as far as my optimism goes.

      My measure of success for the season is a first round win against a middling to struggling team: Montreal, Tampa, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit or New Jersey. We have beaten most of those teams recently. I don't want to play Columbus; we don't play well against them.

      Sure other teams have a better group of centers, Pittsburgh and San Jose spring to mind. However, I don't think our committee of Bozak, Kadri, Bolland, Holland and McClement is that bad. While it lacks the big number one center, there is some depth that exceeds other teams that many of us don't follow that much. As a group, are the top 4 centers on Tampa, New York, Philadephia, Washington or New Jersey that much better than Bozak, Kadri, Bolland and Holland? Philadephia's centers didn't look that much better when we played them, nor did Tampa or NJ or New York's.

      That being said, if we can just beat Montreal in the first round, I will count this as the best season in 20 years.


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    3. Thanks DP- well said. I know where you're coming from.

      I think you (and most VLM readers) know my view: the East is not a great Conference, and every roster has just OK/ replaceable parts- just like the Leafs.

      I love your thought of a Montreal match-up. It wouldn't be the best two teams in hockey, but I sense it would make for a great series and ratchet up a wonderful old rivalry, especially if it went six or seen games. Thanks DP.

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  4. Hey Michael,

    Kadri and Gardiner have been playing great since your post about them; they must have read it and got inspired. Incidentally, I didn't think you were suggesting the boys be traded in that post. I kind of conflated my response there with my commentary on the lack of action at the trade deadline. Sorry for the lack of clarity!

    Also, it's great to see Bozak getting the recognition he's earned. As I mentioned last post, I've become a real fan of his this year. Let's hope last night's stats were an aberration. Even though he was minus-three, Bozak's line had plenty of quality scoring chances. As you've observed about Kessel, that whole line is pretty consistent in terms of effort and potential to score in any given game, regardless of the points they actually put up.

    I'm looking forward to more meaningful games along the home stretch (hopefully to a home-ice berth in the playoffs). This upcoming western swing will be pretty tough and perhaps season-defining when it's all said and done. And I assume Reimer will get some starts in the back-to-back games as well.

    Go Leafs!

    Matt

    PS: Any more MLHS Hangouts coming up..?

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    1. Hey Matt- I understood your last post, just wanted to make sure my comments were not aimed at them being moved.

      Like you, I don't fret over games here or there where there is no "outcome" in terms of points for a player or line. As you note, I've often said here Kessel plays much the same most nights, it's just a question of whether the puck finds the net or not.

      Rod trips are often good for teams, especially if they can put some wins together. Togetherness and all that.

      We had a Hangout scheduled and lost a great guest at the last minute! Thanks Matt.

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  5. I wonder what would have happened in game seven a year ago if Bozak had played as he would have won a few face offs, that alone could have made the difference. It would also have been nice to have had Fraser out there as well as he would have been clearing Chara out from the front of the net. I have a few Bruin fan buddies that keep insisting that the Bruins were exhausted from their tough late season schedule and if they had been rested they would have breezed through the Leafs. Of course I disagree and still think the Bruins fluked out a win but it is all history now. I think that losing that series will make the Leafs a better playoff team this year. It may even have been a young Leaf team expected to get blown out by the Bruins and when they realized they were going to win the series they started thinking about the Pens before the game was over. Of course there was also the refs putting away the whistles and allowing the Bruins to get away with everything. It may have been the refs figured the game was over as well so they thought there was no longer any point in calling penalties. But seriously everyone saw Kelly elbow JVR - blood everywhere and the refs pretend nothing happened.

    I agree Bozak is a catalyst and very underrated. Kessel and JVR are better with him in the lineup as the results since he returned from injury have shown.

    If they can stay healthy the Leaf playoff team should be a lot better than a year ago, and if they can start playing better defense, which they can they should surprise a lot of people. The offence is there and Kessel, JVR and Kadri are a year older and better. Kadri had one of his best games of the year on Sat. and made a beautiful play carrying the puck out to help set up Lupul's OT winner. Lupul is just getting revved up and although Clarkson has not been good he might be a difference maker when the playoffs start - there is no doubt in my mind that he will be playing a hard physical game and he wants to win.

    So if you compare the game 7 roster last year of players no longer on the team you have -

    McArthur - Raymond
    Komorov - Clarkson
    Frattin - Holland
    Colborne - Ashton
    Grabovsk - Bolland
    Liles - Rielly
    O'Byrne - Gleason

    Then add in a healthy Bozak and Bernier and maybe Bodie to replace Orr. In my mind the roster has been improved a lot and when I look at what they have on paper they are better than the Bruins as I am also keeping in mind the that players like Chara are not that young anymore.


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    1. I said going into the playoffs last year that the Bruins were beatable, and I feel that way even more now.

      Yes, the Leafs do have an improved roster- and they should, after years of being able to draft high and rebuilding as they have. Now, whether they have players who will be truly elite, I'm not sure how many are or will be other than Kessel, van Riemsdyk and arguably Phaneuf, (and Rielly in terms of potential). But you don't have to have a team of stars to win. You need to have evbeyone working their tail off, along with the other attributes I cited in today's post. On any given day the Leafs look like they are "there". At other times, old habits resurface and it feels less certain they will be able to play playoff-winning hockey. Thanks Alton.

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  6. Bozak was always good. He wasn't always scoring but he was always defensively responsible and good in the faceoff circle and he was always the guy that allowed Kessel and Lupul/JVRi to create offence by digging the pucks out and jump-starting the rushes.

    I'm not so sure that at this point Bergeron isn't looking like Bozak light as opposed to the other way around. His point totals this season are a lot better than Bergeron's (37 in 41 games played vs. 43 in 64) and he's 3rd on the Leafs in +/- right after the 1st defensive pairing of Phaneuf/Gunnarson. He's still lagging behind Bergeron in faceoffs and +/- but I'm honestly not sure I'd trade Bozak for Bergeron straight-up. Bozak has been getting steadily better each year and he's been forced to 'develop' on a far weaker team than Bergeron, with far fewer ordained veterans to help him along.

    I have no doubt that he'll continue to get better as the team matures and begins to gain playoffs experience.

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    1. I'll let DP see how he feels about your Bozak/Bergeron comparison flip! I well say this: I'm always happy when my teams, in any sport, have a good young player who is getting better on the roster, rather than an aging guy who used to be an impact player. It's nice to have them on their way up, instead of on their way down the performance ladder. (Not suggesting Bergeron is no longer an impact player, by the way!). Thanks leafdreamer.

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    2. I'm also thinking about Bergeron at his peak. He had one year with 73 points and other years with 70 and 64.

      As soon as Bozak gets 70 points, many people will probably stop talking about trading for a number one center.

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  7. Michael,

    Very interesting thoughts so far on Bozak. So kudos to you for coming up with another thought provoking discussion.

    Bozak is a very good fit on the Leafs for one reason, and one reason only, Phil Kessel. Phil is a wonderful offensive player, and Bozak is the biggest benificiary of his talent. The last time there was a player so tied to another's offensive gifts was Rob Brown in Pittsburgh. Having the greatest of all time dishing you gimme goals must be pretty sweet. That is exactly the situation Bozak has in Toronto.

    There was some information gathering done by another Leafs site. It showed that the overwhelming majority of goals scored by Bozak were into an empty net, or came on a breakaway/shootout situation. They were exactly the kind of goals I remember Mario Lemieux setting up for Rob Brown. Kick ins, bank shots, whatever you want to call them. Any reasonably talented minor league player would score them as well.

    The only team in the league that would have Bozak as its #1 centre is Toronto. He has a certain chemistry with Kessel, and it seems as if its only with Kessel. I am not really sure where this notion that Bozak is good defensively comes from, I certainly don't think he is. I see him as being pretty mediocre from the faceoff circle as well. The best thing about Tyler Bozak, is that he is aware that Phil is the best player on the ice, and at every opportunity he passes Phil the puck. Without fail when Bozak gets the puck he immediately looks to dish it, thats great. Phil Kessel has proven to be wondefully talented at passing to his team mates. He sets up as many easy chances for the Leafs as any winger I have ever seen. The fact that Bozak is smart enough to pass the puck instead of letting ego get in the way, thinking he is more than he is, is wonderful.

    Anyone who would rather have Bozak as a defensive presence than Patrice Bergeron, is someone I would love to make hockey trades with. I could make a lot of metaphors here about what I think this kind of comparison reminds me of, but I won't. They are not remotely similar as players. Where did this idea come from that Bergeron is on the decline, and Bozak is on the way up in his career? They are barely a year apart in age.

    Big road trip starts tonight in Cali, hope everyone can stay up to watch the games this week.

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    1. Any Bozak discussion will likely always trigger a wide range of responses within the Leaf population. I see him as more impactful than you describe, Jim, but recognize why so many see him as mostly the beneficiary of playing with a gifted offensive player.

      If Bozak played in Columbus or Nashvville, how would he be seen/perceived? I don't know, but I guess it would depend on his coach, his linemates and the overall situation he was part of. Thanks Jim.

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    2. I think that your last sentence sums up the way I feel about most sports. That perceived success, or failure is quite often due in large part to the situation that individual players find themselves in. The chemistry that Bozak and Kessel have is undeniable, what I was getting at in my previous comment was that they seem to be better together, and more than the sum of their parts.

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    3. Agreed, Jim. It's hard to imagine Bozak producing at this level on another team- he'd never be playing first-line minutes with elite players. He may still be a very nice NHL player but not what he might become in Toronto playing with Kessel.

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    4. Let's not forget - chemistry is a major element in the success of a line. It can't just be discounted as "anybody could get points with that guy". Mats Sundin was definitely an elite center, but the Leafs never really found linemates that worked for him. And Leaf fans weren't happy with him for years! I think we'd all agree that our top line has been very effective since Bozak's return, and that can't just be put down to coincidence. As other posters have mentioned here, our vulnerability is what happens if Bozak gets injured. I know I held my breath on Saturday when they said he'd hurt his hand stopping a puck.

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    5. And I think that's the point we can't forget, Gerund- if Bozak is absent, what is, as I said above, the spillover effect? We thought we might not be able to survive without Bolland and for a while, we couldn't. But replacing the centre on your first line as opposed to your third line if even more difficult.

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  8. I've always liked Bozak. He works hard every shift, he skates well and he's smart which makes up for any lack of talent. Most of his goals are as Jim describes. He knows exactly where he needs to be and he reads the play very well. We've never seen Bozak on a different line and Kadri has only played on the first line a few times when the whole team was struggling with injuries so it's hard to evaluate Bozak, or whether Kadri would be better there. If Bozak had played on a different line and made a big difference there or made his line-mates better and then graduated to the first line , we would have less doubts. There are things we just don't know.

    Bozak came to the Leafs out of university and they play so few games that they are typically late bloomers. He does seem to get better every year but I don't think I'd put him in the elite category. He will never be a power forward yet he know instinctively which player he needs to take out. He is a player who is smart, does his job always to the best of his ability, has a great attitude and never panics on or off the ice, is trusted by the coaching staff in all situations and is a good fit, if nothing spectacular, on the first line. I appreciate Bozie for all he does and I don't have overly high expectations. I should have saved time and just said---I can't say whether he makes the first line better, but I do believe beyond a doubt he makes the team better. C.N

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    1. Your last line says it, C.N.- "star" player or not, his presence makes the whole team better. And if, as you suggest, we don't have unduly high expectations, we can appreciate what he is- as opposed to what he isn't.

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  9. Make that 40 points in 42 games and an even better, still the best +/- among forwards on the Leafs.

    I remember reading the 'information' Jim refers to - it is either by the statistics-obsessed guys over on PPP or the statistics-obsessed Cam Charron who used to write for the Leafs nation. Both are at this point scrambling to remain relevant after their theory that the leafs will inevitably collapse because their shot differential is negative has been disproven by reality.

    A big part of the argument against Bozak was that most of his assists were secondary assists which was somehow supposed to 'prove' that he wasn't as deserving of points as the guys that were scoring or being the last man to pass to the goal-scorer.

    The problem with this argument is that it doesn't value the defensive contribution by Bozak who, by winning the puck in the defensive zone and springing a winger, creates and begins the play.

    Another problem with this argument is that it gives no value to the face off win that begins a scoring play, again, either because it results in a 'secondary' assist or in no assist at all.

    There is probably a reason why NHL doesn't differentiate between primary and secondary assists: it's because they are both important - sometimes, often in fact, the secondary assist is just as or more important as the primary one. To recognize this, and even that sometimes a great defensive play that is nowhere near the score-sheet is just as important as the pass to a scorer or a tap into the net, is to only further problematize any argument that relies on numbers to make it's case.

    So, what's really going on right now is Bozak is playing great hockey and even the stats-sheet, which is not generally speaking kind to the players like him and Bergeron, is flattering him.

    This is an amazing high-scoring, gritty, super-fast and super-skilled team we've been watching lately an especially last night in Annaheim. Clarkson's finally found a way to contribute by dropping the gloves twice (and winning a fight against a guy that looked like he was twice his size). Everyone is playing well right now.

    Everything is coming together right now when the stakes are high and only the strong survive. Looks to me like Carlyle's winning recipe is working just like it worked last season. It's an old fashioned, slow-cooking stew (insert your favourite toaster reference here) and it's smelling good :)

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  10. It may not have been perfect but it was a fun game to watch and a great team effort. I'll give Carlyle credit for using some smart strategy to keep certain player's minutes down a bit (ie. Phaneuf, Bozak) once they had a 3-0 lead. That saved energy may be the difference in the second of a back-to-back even if it meant the shots total was high at the end. (Perry wasn't going to be denied.)

    It was also nice to see Ranger get a reward for a good effort in the last few games and three perfectly blocked shots last night. I always thought that his early mistakes were sprinkled liberally with just plain bad luck. I'm not seeing that now. He's had to learn to be a tough, stay-at-home Dman and provide safe if limited minutes. I wonder if Gleason has a part in that process. He sets a great example. C.N.

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