Over the past four or five seasons, I’ve been a pretty harsh critic of Tyler Bozak. I’ve frequently argued that he was a poor player propped up by playing with one of the league’s most dynamic wingers, and that if it weren’t for Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak would score very few points in the National Hockey League.
Despite my criticisms, Bozak has continued to put up points since Kessel was traded to the Penguins, and I think it’s time for a re-assessment of Bozak’s play. Let’s take a look at how we got to here, and what the evidence seems to say today.
My criticisms of Bozak have tended towards two points:
1. He only scores because he plays with great wingers.
2. He’s poor defensively.
Let’s start with the first one. Tyler Bozak’s scoring really broke out in the 2011-12 season when he scored 47 points, which ranked him 38th among NHL centres that year. That was a big jump over the prior season when his 32 points put him 65th in scoring for centres, tied with long-time depth centres such as Dominic Moore and Marty Reasoner. Bozak put up a pretty high rate of points playing with Phil Kessel over the four seasons starting in 2011-12, so that’s the span I’m going to focus on.
Over those four seasons, Tyler Bozak played a remarkable amount of his even strength minutes with Phil Kessel: 85%. To give you some idea how much Bozak and Kessel were joined at the hip, that’s about how often Daniel and Henrik Sedin played together during those seasons. In 2011-12, Bozak and Kessel’s primary 3rd linemate was Joffrey Lupul. For the next three years, it was James van Riemsdyk. Let’s take a look at how Bozak’s scoring compared to his linemates over that four-year span:
Bozak didn’t outscore any of his most common linemates in any of those years. And the degree to which he was outscored by Kessel was remarkable: despite Bozak playing 85% of his minutes with Kessel, Phil had 100 more points, an average of 25 per year. What kind of 1st line centre, I wondered, never outscores his wingers?
There was even more evidence that Bozak’s scoring was primarily driven by his time spent with Kessel. Here are Tyler’s per-60 minute rates of goals, assists, and points at 5v5 while playing with and without Phil from 2011-12 to 2014-15:
When playing with Kessel, Bozak’s scoring dropped in nearly half. To put in perspective what those scoring rates mean, here are roughly the scoring rate cut-offs for various lines from 2011-12 to 2014-15:
So Bozak’s scoring rate fell from “pretty good 2nd liner” to “bad 4th liner” when not playing with Kessel. Based on that evidence, it seemed fair to say that Bozak was not capable of generating points in the NHL without Phil Kessel.
If that was true, we’d expect that Bozak would have struggled to put up points since the Leafs sent Phil Kessel to the Penguins. But that hasn’t happened. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Bozak has 44 points in 69 games, very similar to the rate that he scored at over the previous few seasons. Let’s see how his scoring rate at 5v5 has fared:
Not only has Bozak’s scoring not fallen, but it’s even gone up a little bit. That’s partly because this season Bozak is benefitting from an absurdly high on-ice S%: 14% vs 9% during his last four years with Kessel. So we should expect Bozak’s scoring rate this season to slow down. But even still, there’s no escaping the fact that Bozak has continued to score at a reasonably good rate since the Phil Kessel trade.
If I’m being fair, and I try to be fair, I have to admit that I was wrong. Tyler Bozak has continued scoring at a decent clip even without Phil Kessel on his wing. I underestimated his offensive skill.
The other half of the equation is defence. And on that count, I think my original judgement still holds. Watching Bozak play, he often still floats in the defensive zone, and he frequently loses his coverage. The numbers back up my assessment. Bozak continues to have very poor defensive results relative to the rest of the Leafs. The next chart is the rate at which shot attempts have been allowed by the Leafs with Bozak on the ice over the past five seasons (a higher CA/60 Rel is bad, ie. the team allows more shots when that player is on the ice):
You can see pretty clearly when Mike Babcock takes over, as the team-wide rate of shots against drops pretty sharply.
Bozak’s numbers have improved somewhat over the past two seasons, but the most likely explanation is that he’s now being deployed in a much more sheltered role, no longer asked to play against the other team’s top lines every night.
So Bozak’s defensive play has continued to have problems, and I think it’s fair to be critical of his results when the Leafs don’t have the puck. But as for his offensive skill, I under-rated it. He’s continued to put up points even without Phil Kessel on his wing, and my prediction that his scoring would crater without Kessel was wrong.