January 27, 2017

Ukrainian pro hockey update

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Bozak a centerpiece in Toronto

The past off-season saw a lot of changes in the Toronto Maple Leafs line-up with their recent successful drafts creating an influx of several top prospects. Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, to name three, have the club trending away from league doormats to potential playoff contenders. It also has created a logjam at the center position, where the Leafs suddenly boast four quality centermen. Rookies Matthews and Nylander join veterans Nazem Kadri and Ukrainian Tyler Bozak to form a strong nucleus up the middle of the ice.

When both are healthy, Bozak and Kadri have been Toronto’s No. 1 and No. 2 centers. Adding Matthews and Nylander means a position change for somebody or a possible trade in the future. Both Bozak and Kadri are under contract for several seasons at salary cap hits of over $4 million. If the Leafs decide to keep one of the two veterans, who would it be?

Kadri is the obvious choice since he is the younger of the two by five years, but he’s had some problems with the organization which have led to suspensions. His past behavior is something the Leafs don’t want rubbing off on their youngsters. Bozak does not have those problems.

The next question becomes will Kadri, Toronto’s first pick (seventh overall) in 2009, accept being supplanted by two youngsters and relegated to No. 3 on the depth chart after a few years of being groomed for the role of No. 1? The undrafted Bozak, a free agent signee in 2009, might be more comfortable in the No. 3 role. As a stronger defensive player, the role might be more suited for him.

Both would easily find employment elsewhere as capable performers. Kadri, 6-foot-tall and 190 pounds, has the better offensive upside and profiles as a solid No. 2 center on most teams. Bozak, 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, is a better two-way player who probably slots into the No. 3 role on most good teams. Heading into the current season, Bozak had 107 goals and 267 points in 435 games, while Kadri had 81 goals and 197 points in 326 games.

Thus far in 2016-2017, Matthews the 6-foot-2, 216-pound No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, has emerged as the top center. The highly touted American has been identified as a special player with star potential. Nylander is a high-skilled prospect who demonstrated in a short audition with the Maple Leafs last season that he has a great future (six goals, seven assists, 13 points in 22 NHL games).

It is Toronto coach Mike Babcock’s responsibility to groom Matthews and Nylander while trying to make his team a playoff contender. The early going has seen Nylander spend time playing the right side with Matthews and the experienced Bozak and Kadri plugging up the middle.

As the season unfolds with the Maple Leafs attempting to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, it remains to be seen if Toronto is big enough for both Bozak and Kadri.

The case for Bozak

Undersized and undrafted after playing in British Columbia’s Junior A circuit, the Regina native spent only a year and a half in college before jumping straight to the Maple Leafs as a free agent. By then he was already 23 and struggled to produce, putting up only 134 points in his first four seasons, despite getting tons of power play time and almost 85 percent of his even strength minutes with Phil Kessel, one of the top scoring wingers in the game.

For several years, the debate raged over whether the Ukrainian Bozak was a suitable first-line center for a team desperate to make the playoffs – an argument that went beyond point production given how weak Toronto’s top unit was defensively.

Bozak is a unique player in today’s NHL. He’s not very big or fast or strong and is not blessed with the typical offensive attributes one expects in a minute-munching, playmaking top line centerman.

He is solid on breakaways, as evidenced by his 40 percent career success rate in the shootout, ranking him high among active players – and has used those skills to become a short-handed scoring threat. He wins more than his share of faceoffs, owning a career success rate of 53 percent, only a percentage point or two below the game’s elite.

For the most part, Bozak is quite popular with his Leafs mates and coaches, who are sometimes called upon to defend him from critics. They are happy for his success and respect the work he puts in to produce surprisingly strong offensive numbers.

The past several years has seen Bozak doing his best to fill the role of Toronto’s No. 1 center. The lack of first-rate talent on the roster saw the Leafs icing two below-quality top lines – Bozak was not a No. 1 center and the problem was compounded by the lack of first-line wingers (Kessel included). Bozak did his best with limited assistance.

Fast forward to 2016-2017 with Bozak centering the second forward line, flanked by James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner on his wings. The stress of top-line production has been replaced by second-line confidence. Note that the line found some major early chemistry for the Maple Leafs by putting up a combined 44 points in 16 games.

The now-30-year-old would like to stick with Toronto through the team’s rebuild. He still has two years left on his contract beyond the current campaign, although there’s always a chance he’ll be dealt before his deal expires. The Ukrainian has paid his dues in Toronto, and there’s a chance his loyalty and perseverance may be rewarded. He makes a fine mentor for youngsters like Matthews, Nylander and Marner.

Bozak bio bits:  Proudly admits to being Ukrainian; favorite food is varenyky; selected an alternate captain for 2016-2017 season; played two seasons with University of Denver where he scored 57 points in 60 games; tallied remarkable 45 goals, 83 assists, 128 points in his final season with Victoria of British Columbia League, winning Brett Hull top scorer award; suffered torn meniscus in left knee during sophomore season at University of Denver; heavily pursued free agent after sophomore year in spite of never being drafted by an NHL club; first contract with Toronto was for two years, $4 million per year, with performance bonuses; second deal was two-year extension; third contract in July 2013 was five-year, $21 million; and on March 28, 2015, Bozak scored his first career NHL hat-trick, capping off a four-point night.

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at
iman@sfgsports.com