Twice in the last week – once after the Tampa Bay game, once during the first intermission of the Oilers game – we’ve had the opportunity to watch Tyler Bozak do interviews for television. Twice during the past week, he’s stood there in the hallway outside the Leaf dressing room, spiky hair soaked with sweat, talking first to Paul Hendrick, then to Elliotte Friedman, with a giant freaking grin on his face. The big grin on his face tells you that Tyler Bozak is a happy young man. He’s got six goals and eleven assists in twenty-three games as a twenty-three year old rookie centreman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he’s making $875,000 with another 2.8 million dollars worth of bonuses on the table. Of course he’s happy. Why the hell wouldn’t he be happy?
The big grin also tells you he’s a young man. Those of a certain age can’t help but be struck immediately by Bozak’s youthful appearance. He seems to have a little acne here and there, which makes him look even more like the kid behind the counter at Taco Bell than he otherwise might, but more than anything else you can see the excitement of a young man in his eyes and in the corners of his mouth when he simply cannot supress the grin that wants to get out. Doing those interviews, you can tell that he is absolutely stoked, the way only a young player – who hasn’t been doing this sort of thing since Chelios was a child – can possibly be.
It’s that youthful exuberance that Bozak personifies – not to mention a healthy dose of skill – that is getting the attention of a lot of Maple Leafs fans these days. It’s been a long time since the identity of any Maple Leaf team has been so deeply intertwined with the performance of its youngest players. The Pat Quinn teams of the late 90′s and the early years of this century, teams of the pre-cap era, were veteran, business-like teams, teams replete with known quantities, familiar faces and proven performers. The Pat Burns teams of the early 90s were probably the last teams to have a youthful prospect that electrified the fanbase – I’m thinking of rookie goalie Felix Potvin – but even he shone in the shadow of his more celebrated, but older, teammates Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark. Just off the top of my head, I think you may have to go back to the mid seventies Leaf teams that featured Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson up front, along with Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull manning the point, for a comparable level of excitement about players of such recent vintage.
That kind of excitement is very much what has been happening since the January 31st trade that sent established Leaf forwards out of town in favour of J.S. Giguere, Dion Phaneuf and his celebrity girlfriend. In the aftermath of that day, four of the Leafs’ top ten scorers had been dispatched elsewhere, and followers of the team were rightly asking, “who’s going to score the goals for this club now?” Obviously, Brian Burke and his management team were hoping that Tyler Bozak – who somewhat suddenly assumed the unchallenged the role of number one centre – would be a big part of the answer to that question. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the Leafs have been building the team starting first and foremost with blueliners; free agent signings and the Phaneuf trade have left the Leafs’ rearguard undoubtedly the Messrs. Moneybags in the locker room. A further hefty chunk of change has been committed to J.S. Giguere in net, leaving a paucity of shekels to go around up front, or at least not very many for fellows not named Phil Kessel. With a decidedly mediocre crop of unrestricted free agents due to come on the market this summer, precious little cap room to devote to their acquisition in any event, and a relative paucity of prime quality surplus tradable assets, it is clear that Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs have premised their rebuilding plan on the assumption that some of the club’s existing young prospects can and will develop into serviceable offensive talent.
Back to the grin on Tyler Bozak’s face: it’s the smile of a young man who’s beginning to believe that he might be one of the young prospects who is going to deliver. There had to have been some part of even Bozak himself that doubted – or at least wasn’t certain – whether he’d truly be good enough to do the kind of job the Leafs were so desperately hoping he could. Up until the Phaneuf trade, he’d shown some flashes of ability at times – will anyone forget the terrific goal he scored against the Flyers for his NHL first? Aside from that wicked dipsy doodle though, he had collected an otherwise quiet 5 assists for a total of 6 points in 11 games. Now six points in 11 games is nothing to sneeze at for an NHL rookie, but it would be fair to say that the jury was still out on Bozak’s potential. In the 12 games since the young Saskatchewanian inherited the #1 centre role, however, he’s done nothing but shine. Solid in the face-off circle (he’s at 56.5% as of March 13th, 2010 according to nhl.com), playing top line minutes and in all situations, Bozak has been producing points at an encouraging rate. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, for example, Chemmy looked at the numbers and (keeping in mind the limitations and dangers of small sample sizes in such exercises) observed that Bozak’s early numbers put him in some pretty good company for his age – his production is comparable to that of Toews, Kopitar and Krejci. I don’t know if the numbers back it up or not, but he also seems to have been doing some decent work on the penalty kill.
More encouraging still, though, is the chemistry that seems to be developing between Bozak and Phil Kessel. It’s trite to say that the Leafs’ fortunes over the next few years will be strongly related to the type of production they can get out of the sniper in the 81 jersey. Much of the early analysis of the trade that brought Kessel to Toronto focussed on his supposed inability to produce without Marc Savard’s assistance. Kessel quieted most of those critics somewhat early on in the season when he began scoring at a torrid pace, but more recently his lamp-lighting had returned to a decidedly more earthly rate. In the last two weeks in particular, though, the Kessel-Bozak-Kulemin unit in general, and Kessel in particular, has been producing offensive chances like Habs fans flip over flaming cop cars. The defining moment of this revelation, and of the Kessel/Bozak connection in particular, was undoubtedly the overtime goal scored by Kessel against the Lightning on Thursday the 11th of March (UPDATE, 11:24 a.m.: I originally had this link tagged as happening on the 10th of March, but Charlie correctly points out that I shouldn’t be writing this stuff at 3 o’clock in the morning that it was the 11th). That goal was clearly manufactured by an absolutely brilliant Bozak pass, one that showed patience, skill and creativity at high speed and in a critical game situation. Yes, the goal happened on a Thursday in March, with the Leafs all but officially eliminated from the postseason and playing against a decidedly suspect opponent, but the fact is that it happened.
Tyler Bozak will turn 24 in 5 days; Phil Kessel is only 22. Maple Leaf fans may be forgiven for looking forward – fingers crossed – to many years to come of a smiling Tyler Bozak recounting for one suit dummy or another how he, Kessel and Kulemin managed to put the biscuit in the basket against the opponent of the day.
What do you think? Â Can you remember a time when there was as much excitement as there is right now about young Leaf talent?
Next up in this series: Nikolai Kulemin.