Bye bye Bozak?

If you’ve been around these parts before, you’re quite familiar with the Tyler Bozak debate: Is he really helping Kessel on that top line? Hurting him? Does it
really matter? Leafs fans have been arguing about it for a couple years now,
and there have been a lot of words written here and on other sites exploring
just how effective their on-ice relationship really is. Here’s one example.

The analytics side of the debate has not been friendly to
Bozak, but now the Leafs have suddenly become friendly with analytics, so where does
that leave us?

Here’s a snippet from David Johnson (HockeyAnalysis.com) looking at the past three years of that top line in his Introduction to Advanced Statistics:

  • Bozak when playing with Kessel had a 46.8 CF% and 51.9 GF%.
  • Bozak when not playing with Kessel had a 32.9 CF% and 38.2 GF%
  • Kessel when not playing with Bozak had a 46.1 CF% and 50.0 GF%

In short, Bozak was terrible when not playing with Kessel while Kessel performed about the same when not playing with Bozak. This is clear evidence that Bozak was dependent on Kessel (along with Lupul and/or van Riemsdyk) and not the other way around. 

There are players in the NHL getting somewhat of a free ride, and it’s been shown time and time again. Their numbers get fluffed because of their linemates, and as a result, they get contracts they probably don’t deserve. It happens far too often, but this type of thing will likely dwindle in the near future as teams are more exposed to data suggesting who’s really helping who. But before teams league-wide start looking in to this more heavily, right now might be the perfect time for the Leafs to get out from under another four years of overpaying Bozak. 

There’s a section of Leafs supporters who take issue with the Bozak debate as if it’s something personal. I’m not trashing Tyler Bozak. I don’t dislike him, and I don’t have
any reason to suggest his departure other than improving the roster and
hopefully opening up some cap space. I’ll even go as far as to say it’s nice
that he’s often there to steer some of the media attention away from his buddy
Phil, who clearly hates dealing with it. Maybe it helped get Kessel locked up
long term, who knows? But there are others on the team capable of the same
(Lupul, for example) and now that they have their star in the mix for the next
eight years, it should be time for the Leafs to fix the mistake that was giving
Bozak that huge contract.

Bozak is coming off his best season points-wise. His 49
points in 58 games puts him in some ridiculous company in terms of
points-per-game (0.85), which includes a few names like Stastny, Hossa, Parise, and
Datsyuk. Is Bozak as talented as anyone on this list? Of course not, and I doubt
anyone is arguing that. Though, while I don’t put a ton of stock in production,
there are a lot of teams who have, and will, fall into the trap of believing a
player’s output is repeatable without digging in to it enough to see who’s
really driving the bus. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t constantly scratch our heads when July 1st rolls around.

As mentioned above, with this analytics movement we’re
seeing, this may be coming to an end soon, and things will tighten up. The time to pawn Bozak off on some unenlightened
manager should be now. The stars have aligned, but there likely a tiny window
to make this kind of deal.

I’ll admit, when it comes down to it, the Leafs’ top six
isn’t something that worried me as much as the bottom two lines or the defence,
or even Carlyle’s ridiculous
“system” that will likely see them get buried all season again. But
that isn’t a reason to hold on to Bozak. 
It’s in the team’s best interest to get as much value from these
contracts as possible under a hard cap, and when you can sell high, you sell
high.  After all, there are others there who can step in. 

It’s been suggested (well, I did a quick twitter poll) that
the Leafs would have trouble moving Bozak in just a straight salary dump, and
that might be true. They would probably need to take back expensive spare
parts. The question is, how do you trade spare parts for someone else’s spare parts
and come out ahead? The idea, quite simply, is to close the gap in terms of
talent and cap hit, and perhaps try to shed term. If the Leafs can
work something out and bring in a player deemed slightly overpaid on a
shorter deal who can drive play, the team will be better off for it. Anything
beyond that could improve the team quite drastically. It’s up to the guys in charge to figure out who to target, and these days they certainly have the tools to do that. Now it’s on them to take advantage of this short time to move out a player that clearly presents an inefficiency in their lineup.