|(above) DU alum Tyler Bozak is back centering the first line in Toronto|
by Jonas Siegel
The job that was supposed to belong to high-priced free agent signee Tim Connolly remains in the hands of University of Denver alum Tyler Bozak.
The 25-year-old has registered 19 points in the last 20 games playing pivot for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the Leafs first line. And with 24 points already this season, Bozak is just eight points from matching the total he had all of last season in an underwhelming sophomore campaign.
“I think the main thing for me is just confidence,” he told the Leaf Report. “I'm confident now that I can get the job done out there; I can get points, I can keep my own end clean and whenever you're playing with confidence you're a way better player.”
Several improvements have sparked the breakthrough third season, many of which stem from greater accountability in the defensive zone.
Struggling to put points on the board early last season, Bozak admittedly cheated in his own end, looking to jump-start the production expected of a first-line centre. “But you find out the hard way that that just results in more goals against and less goals for you,” he said. The minus-29 rating, which stuck like a scarlet letter to his name (and was amongst the worst in the NHL) was a source of real frustration and top priority for cleanup this fall. A plus-5 rating thus far demonstrates progress in that regard. “Obviously they're still going to be mishaps,” Bozak said. “We're an offensive line and we want to produce offensively and not spend a lot of time in our zone so there's going to be times where we give up some goals, but we're plus players this year which is nice.”
Offensively in the past, there was a strong tendency on Bozak's part to force-feed Kessel the puck. Running shotgun with a regular 30-goal man, he felt the need and obvious pressure to find his high-powered linemate as much as possible. “Early in my career I would force it to Phil all the time,” Bozak conceded, “and even he doesn't want me to do that; he wants me to take my shots when I have my opportunities.” Without a goal in the opening 14 games, Bozak has found twine seven times now in the last 20 games. “I'm more confident now that I can score goals. Obviously still a pass-first guy and I'm going to be looking to make the pass first, but I'm not going to force the stuff like I used to,” he said.
According to Bozak, the offensive pitfalls – which saw him post just 15 goals and 32 points in 2010-2011 despite logging over 19 minutes a game – tied back to what became a constant mental struggle in the defensive end, a circular effect considering the initial source of the miscues (cheating for offence). “I think last year wasn't [so much] confidence [that] I couldn't score,” he explained, “it was just every time I was on the ice I thought I was going to get scored on, more so than thinking I was going to score or our line was going to score. And this year every time we get a shift I think there's a good chance that we can get a goal between the three of us.”
Kessel (41 points) and Lupul (38) sit comfortably amongst the league leaders in scoring this season, primarily (and rather unexpectedly) with the third-year centre in the middle. Connolly was inked to a two-year contract this past summer, specifically to fill the first-line centre void, but with injuries and the line's continued success without him there's been little reason for Ron Wilson switch things up. He aimed ever so briefly last week to get “more the look of what we expected” with Connolly in between Kessel and Lupul, but after two periods reverted back to Bozak.
“I was able to get on [the line] at the right time when Loops and Phil got hot,” Bozak noted. “They obviously don't want to break up a line that's doing well so I think a lot of the credit goes out to the wingers for that.”
In addition to the flexibility he's provided down the middle, Bozak has also recently returned to the penalty-kill – a role he filled with some success last season – while remaining a quiet, but effective presence on the league's 3rd ranked powerplay (nine points).
Brian Burke claimed to have added a player of first-round caliber when he signed Bozak as a free agent from the University of Denver. With his performance so far this season, Bozak is beginning to justify that hype.