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. 

  • Gumby

    For a second maybe everybody should ignore where they stand on Bozak and recognize he’s coming off a career year – is that not the perfect time to sell high on him?

    If there’s ever a time to move him, it’s now, because his value simply will not be higher then it is now.

    The bigger problem is the Leafs lack of a true #1C. Look at the teams that have won over the past few years, and they’ve done it with elite, two way centers. The Leafs don’t have that.

    Trading Bozak and getting assets for him, looking for a legit #1, and potentially using the assets you get from trading Bozak in combination with what the Leafs currently have to acquire said #1 C- that should have been the primary goal this offseason. They did a GREAT job adding depth, but they missed out on a big opportunity to sell high on Bozak.

  • Benjamin

    We still need to replace Bozak with “someone”. Maybe Kadri slots up there but the leafs remain awfully weak at centre depth despite how sucky the advanced folks say Bozak is. And Kadri on the second line away from Kessel balances the leaf’s scoring.

    I know – we can slot in Smithson in place of Bozak. That will work. I’m all for upgrading but how – trade Bozak for Toews?

    Sadly Bozak is one of the better centre options the leafs have. And he is under contract for a few years as well.

  • Gumby

    So among the forwards you mentioned, where is Bozak pay-wise? A lot lower than those names I would think.

    I’m not expecting to see him replicate those P/PG numbers this season, but I still expect him to perform well enough to earn his modest 4.2 salary. A number that I highly expected to be inflated based off the fact that he HAS been the Leafs top line Center for quite some time and their history of overpaying players is one we’re all familiar with.

    Kadri showed he wasn’t quite ready to step into the 1C role, so you’re trying to say that paying Bozak 4.2 M a year to stay rather than letting him walk for nothing was a stupid move? Who would you use to fill that hole?

    Listen, I get that it’s pretty easy to look around the league and see some of the star number one centres that other teams have and say “why not us?!”. But for the time being Bozak is all we have and what you’re saying is pretty crazy.

    You think that we should try and “salary-dump” our first line Center with no offered solution (when does a blogger ever offer that), because why? His underlying numbers aren’t what you think they should be? In what world are advanced stats more important than Points per game to the point where they make a player useless ?

    Answer: The fantasy world that you live in, there’s probably about a zero percent chance of Bozak getting “dumped” and every beating a dead horse type article that’s written about it is pretty pointless. I mean come on, be more creative.

    • Gumby

      I think the assumption is that Kadri or even Holland could step in and perform as well or better than Bozak at a lower dollar value. I don’t agree that Kadri failed to show he was ready.

      Personally I’d like to see Kadri or Holland given more of a chance on the first line, (Holland especially intrigues me) but at the same time I don’t think 4.2million is outrageous to the point of having to trade Bozak.

      I would definitely see what is available, but the cap savings when he’s probably only overpaid by maybe 2 million or so aren’t THAT significant to need to dump him. If we have to take equal cap hit back for a different position and no upgrade on skill I don’t think it makes sense given the lack of depth at center. At least right now we have a high scoring top line and all of the other centers pushed down the depth chart to give us a better #2 and #3 than if Bozak goes and everyone else moves up. (The only caveat being that maybe with a better center the top line would increase their GF%)

    • Yes Bozak is paid much lower than those mentioned. I used those names to point out how high his production was this past season, and that should be tempting to some teams. I don’t care how many points he scores, as it’s clear he’s a product of elite wingers the past three years, but other teams might not see that so clearly.

      You keep calling him a first line center as if that isn’t just Randy Carlyle insisting on him being on the first line. I’d argue that given a fair chance, Kadri or Holland could perform at a just-as-good or better clip on that line, and take care of things in their own zone better as well.

      What exactly did Kadri do to show he isn’t capable of centering that line?

      • Gumby

        I’m not understanding that first point, are you saying that teams might not recognize who Bozak’s been playing with? Or that they won’t make the connection between two olympic wingers and increased point production? Either way I think that you’re dreaming friend.

        First line center, defined as: The centerman who plays on the first forward line. That’s been Bozak for a while, no? I disagree with the thought that Kadri could do better in his own end but that’s not the focus here.

        Was there not a time where Bozak was injured and Kadri was tried out on the first line? From my memory the experiment didn’t work and it prompted a point drought from Kessel, exception being one game. This was then followed by experiments such as Holland, Smith and even JVR taking on 1C duties. None of whom performed and produced as well as Bozak in that role.

        Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I remember it.

        I mean, by no means am I a Bozie fanatic (although his Flow was once spectacular) but what you’re saying is just plain wrong chum.

        And if you’re not dumping, what realistic return do you expect to get? Ottawa didn’t get much for Spezza IMO and he’s 10x the player that Bozak is.

        • I’m sure they recognize he’s playing with good wingers, but probably don’t realize the extent to which he is truly a passenger.

          Not denying he had as good a season as we could hope for, but he’s not likely to repeat it and now would be the time to get out from under that contract. I just don’t think the dropoff from running Kadri-Holland-Santorelli-Kontiola down the middle is significant enough (if at all) to warrant keeping Bozak for four more years at that price. Plus there are guys to pick up every year for a low price, like Roy and Ribiero this summer, that could fit that 2C role if Kadri steps in as number one and Holland doesn’t work out. And you’re probably thinking “well they’re not available now so we’d be stuck this season” but the Leafs aren’t going to contend this season, so ditching Bozak’s contract now while it looks good would be the best longterm move.

          And yes he did have unreal flow there for a while but even that’s gone. The list of reasons to keep him is zero now.

          • Gumby

            Consider this, would a Kadri type player who’s more selfish (rightly so) be a proper fit with the top line? I think that one of the best things about Bozak is that he recognizes that his linemates are lightyears better than him and tries to give them the puck whenever possible.

            With a P/PG average like the one you quoted above, I’m really not understanding why you think he needs to go so badly. Not to mention while the Kessel-Bozak relationship may be a running joke, you can’t discount playing comfort and familiarity.

            I thought that the top line looked very dangerous out there last year and if he continues to produce anywhere near what he did last season then his 4.2 Mil/yr contract will start to look like a steal.

            Believe it or not, the Leafs are attempting to become a contender. Dumping their No.1 center is tank-tactics and I just don’t realistically see it happening or even a need to do so.

          • Benjamin

            One of his best attribute is he knows he’s way worse than his linemates? Maybe that’s why people don’t consider him a 1C on any other team.

            I think we can confidently say that Bozak will never match last year’s PPG so if you could get a second pairing NHL defender for him today, would you?

          • Gumby

            True, but I also think that Kadri is “worse” than those two players, I guess my point was that he knows his role and is very unselfish.

            I’d be okay with a trade that made sense for sure, no tears would be shed over here if we improve our team in any way.

            But dumping him simply for the sake of getting rid of him is not going to do that.

          • Benjamin

            Agreed on all counts.

            Though I’m concerned with Bozak’s role on the team as he gets older and the Leafs look towards contention, there still needs to be a return of some sort. I’m probably somewhere between you and Ryan about what an acceptable return would be, though that’s admittedly not saying much haha.

            If no one is willing to bite on his career year then trading him for nothing (say, a mid round pick) isn’t good asset management either. But I don’t think Bozak’s stock is getting any higher than it is now so, if we want to extract value, its either trade him now or never.