The Book on Bozak

Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

“Plus minus is a very deceptive statistic when a team struggles, and he’s been put in a tough situation. If you look at the defense pairings, on a team that’s below .500 the top defense pairing playing against the other team’s top line is almost always minus, no matter how well they play. So I don’t put a lot of stock in plus minus.”
-Brian Burke on Tyler Bozak.

To a point, we have to agree with Burke’s statement, but only to a point. To say that a negative plus minus (-29) rating is the only reason behind Bozak being viewed as an underachiever this year is making a somewhat big understatement. It’s entirely true that Bozak played some of his toughest minutes this year. The primary reason for that might be that the coaching staff and management had given up on the idea of him being a top line centerman in the NHL, if indeed that was the original plan. It’s important to look at this not as a knock on Bozak as much as the organization crediting his two way, shutdown and penalty killing potential.

Bozak has always had a knack for winning faceoffs. Combine that with his solid offensive potential and good skating ability, it was no wonder many of us expected him to be a good top six option in the future. Brian Burke on April 3rd 2009, immediately after he captured his signature: “He is a young man that was coveted by a large number of teams in our league and it’s our goal to help him reach his potential with our organization. He’s a responsible player at both ends of the ice and he has shown the ability to put points on the board with his quickness at the collegiate level.” That’s certainly an indication of top six plans. But, Burke’s latest trip to the conference room might suggest those plans never really changed.

“If we got Tyler Bozak in the one hole (top line center), and he can’t play in the one hole, that’s my fault, it’s not Tyler’s fault. I really like the way Tyler’s game improved this year, he became a really solid penalty killer, he’s what we thought we were getting when we signed him, and he’s a great kid. He’s going to be a good NHL player. He’s probably in the wrong box (playing as the top line C). If he’s playing in the one hole and he’s not on the same level as his two wingers that means they are not getting the puck, they are not getting chances. That’s not his fault.”

This is a clear indication of a “lesser” role for Bozak in the future.

Many players suffer from the now commonly known phenomenon called the sophomore slump. Players in their second NHL years do sometimes regress in their overall performance, offensive output and quality of play. But, regardless of the sophomore slump phenomenon and given Bozak’s age, we have to consider some areas of his game are fully developed. The question marks surrounding those areas of his game have already been answered and as stated earlier tell a story of a good penalty killing forward who can win faceoffs. Yes, it can be argued that this was only his first full year in the National Hockey League, and it is also true that a player can always strive to improve. However, just like human growth and development, player development tends to slow or even stagnate as the player gets older. That might or might not be the case with Bozak.

During the 2009-10 season, Bozak played 37 games and had 27 points. This year, a horrific plus minus rating of -29 overshadows a somewhat okay offensive output of 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points. Not even close to what was expected considering he’s centering a line featuring Phil Kessel who alone had 32 goals and 64 points. Even if we screw up the math and say that every Bozak assist came on a Phil Kessel goal (not nearly the case) that would only lead him to contribute on just 53.1% of all the goals scored by
his best winger.

Let’s look at it more closely and accurately. Tyler Bozak spent 20.9% of his EV (even strength) playing time on a line with Lupul and Kessel. He spent 16.82% of his EV playing time with Kessel and Crabb, 12.51% of it on a line with Kessel and Versteeg, 6.67% with Kadri and Kessel, 5.62% with Armstrong and Kessel. 3.25% with Kulemin, Kessel and 3.07% with just Phil Kessel.

If you add everything up, the numbers tell us that Bozak spent 68.84% of his EV playing time playing with Kessel. Even the faulty math tells us that Bozak should feature on more than my invented 50% of Kessel’s points (if we say Bozak’s 15 goals all came with an assist from Kessel and his 17 assists were all on a goal by Kessel – which is not the case). Now this scheme is completely wrong because, even by factoring in EV percentages of playing time he got with Kessel, it doesn’t correspond to the actual amount of Kessel’s goals and points Bozak featured in. However, what it can tell us is that if Bozak featured on expected the amount of Kessel goals for his playing time percentage, he would have had significantly more points. In short, playing with an elite winger for 68,84% of your EV time should get you more points and not take away from the points scored by that elite winger.

I have often wondered why Bozak is an entirely different animal on the PK than when playing with Kessel. Then I noticed something. When playing with Kessel, Bozak tends to pass more often than he should. He also tends focus more on his offensive game to better complement Kessel as opposed to his bigger defensive contribution when put alongside other players. Could it be that Burke’s quote at the beginning of the article is absolutely true? Bozak isn’t to blame for having to play in the one spot. He seems to suffer from lack confidence exactly because he can’t produce offensively on the level of an elite NHL winger. Yes, Kessel isn’t a defensive dynamo (although he made strides in that department this year) but their combined plus minus isn’t about them both being defensively horrible, and it’s about them turning the puck over because one guy isn’t playing his game. It’s about Bozak lacking said confidence when making plays. It’s also about that other 31.16% of the EV time where he’s put in against top line opposition.

I view Tyler as more of a chameleon-like player. He easily adapts to his linemates tendencies, unlike say Kulemin who plays his game all the time, no matter what line he’s on. That says nothing about his skillset which is always there. Based on that assumption, considering how he has produced in say, penalty killing situations, I think his skillset is more suited for the third line. That said, I still believe Bozak can also be a somewhat productive offensive player, but he has to be put in the situations where he can thrive rather than in ones he can fail. Playing with less offensively gifted linemates offers him the freedom to use his offensive capabilities to make that line more productive while limiting the burden of him having to produce at the “Kessel” rate. It’s also beneficial for his defensive skills that, with all shown so far, have a better chance of making him into a really effective NHL player.

Defensively, one area where I have noticed Bozak struggling is when playing against top talent. Now, although that might not win me the world’s most original hockey thought award, it is a really valuable concept to grasp. It is indeed true that most players struggle against top talent. That is precisely why players like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are known as game breaking players. Isn’t it also true that, in order to be that effective 3rd line shutdown center the organization apparently wants him to be and most fans think he already is, he has to handle elite players better? In some of the games I re-watched for this analysis (particularly against NJ and Washington, hence the Kovalchuk and Ovechkin bit) Bozak struggled to keep pace. He was caught out of position numerous times in the defensive zone and when caught one on one he got repeatedly beat by the opposing elite forward. Puck watching and positioning seems to be his biggest issue when playing against skilled players. He is not taking the player by sticking with him and tying his stick up, but rather staring at and trying to take the puck. Like I mentioned earlier, defensive zone coverage is also a problem, but it seems to appear significantly more when playing against top tier talent. Elite players have that ability to evade coverage, find holes in the zonal positioning and exploit them. More than anything, Bozak needs to learn how to close out lanes when defending against elite players higher in the defensive zone.

Fortunately, most of his offensive and defensive issues are in fact problems that can be corrected with him being put into an adequate role, proper coaching, some seasoning and more time spent playing against elite opposition. It has nothing to do with developing his natural skillset, which truly does fit the bill of a good shutdown forward with some offensive upside, much like a smaller version of Jordan Staal.