Tyler Bozak is Toronto’s first line center. For now and the foreseeable future, Bozak has a stranglehold on a very enviable position between James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel. While Bozak has occupied a similar spot in the past, Nazem Kadri’s emergence last season and Bozak’s own untimely injuries had set the stage for a tantalizing possibility – the seemingly natural progression of Toronto’s most talented center (Kadri) into a role on the first line.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite like we envisioned. When both Bozak and Bolland were out of the lineup, Randy Carlyle’s hand was forced. He had no choice but to try Kadri with the team’s two star wingers. Carlyle offered quotes suggesting that Kadri’s success in said role could spell an end to Bozak’s undisputed reign. A promising start (two goals for Kadri on a Dec. 5 win against the Stars) quickly faded along with the team’s fortunes over the following weeks. Kadri has only scored twice since that night, and Carlyle and co. all but clapped with glee when Bozak returned shortly before the Winter Classic.
Bozak’s timely (but wildly unsustainable) production in recent games likely has reinforced the coaching staff’s opinions on the matter. Bozak’s leash is extremely long as Carlyle values him highly for a number of reasons of varying merit. The benefits of giving Toronto’s most talented center (still Kadri) an extended look in this position over Bozak could certainly be debated. But at this point, MLSE is set on clawing their way into the playoffs and the wheel is still in Carlyle’s hands. Thus, barring further injuries or suspensions, we are likely seeing the formation of a consistent look for this team’s top nine:
With the lion’s share of offense in recent wins coming from the Bozak line, the coaching staff has begun to call for support from the rest of the cast. Kulemin and Clarkson have exhibited a burgeoning ability to establish a cycle in recent weeks. They have done so with centers such as Jay McClement and more recently, Peter Holland. Both of the gritty wingers have also shown an increased willingness to fire the puck. Bolland’s hardnosed style of game and vastly superior offensive arsenal (sorry Jay) will mesh well with this pair upon his much-awaited return to the lineup.
As such, it is the least predictable line that will be the deciding factor in Toronto’s success. Nazem Kadri flanked by Lupul and Raymond will hopefully garner some of the soft minutes that the Lupul-Kadri pair saw last season. Kadri and Lupul represent two skilled players that are similar in their consistent, passionate desire to win. They also share a willingness to use their bodies when they get involved in the game. While Mason Raymond has had a successful year with the Leafs, his game is an inconsistent mix of blazing speed, solid puck skills, and poor decisions.
Both Lupul and Kadri have fallen off from their spectacular point paces of a year ago. Yet with the eventual return of Bolland, Randy Carlyle will once again have two lines to give the hardest assignments to on a nightly basis. With the character and talent of Lupul and Kadri up against a lower level of opposition, the Leafs could very well see the return of their vaunted scoring of a year ago.
Tim Gleason says: “we have to win games”. Exactly the level of insight expected from a hockey player.
How the Leafs have “turned their fortunes around”.
Randy Carlyle loves Tyler Bozak. But probably not more than Phil Kessel does.