I Was Wrong About Tyler Bozak

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.

BOZAK’S LINEMATES

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 Kessel Lupul JVR
2011-12 47 82 67 x
2012-13 28 50 x 32
2013-14 49 80 x 61
2014-15 49 61 x 56
TOTAL 173 273 67 149

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:

W/ Kessel W/out
G/60 0.65 0.21
A/60 1.06 0.62
P/60 1.72 0.83

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:

1st 1.9
2nd 1.6
3rd 1.4
4th >1.4

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.

POST-KESSEL TRADE

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:

W/ Kessel Post-Kessel
G/60 0.65 0.72
A/60 1.06 1.12
P/60 1.72 1.84

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.

DEFENCE

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):

CA/60 CA/60 Rel
2012-13 66.2 +4.2
2013-14 70.8 +4.0
2014-15 66.0 +5.7
2015-16 59.7 +1.7
2016-17 63.3 +2.4

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.

  • Brad M.

    The Bozak discussion is an interesting one.
    I was also strongly in the camp that argued Bozak was a Kessel coattailer.
    It is unreasonable to suggest he suddenly learned how to become a better player.
    It is also undeniable that Bozak’s underlying numbers were not good prior to Phil’s trade.
    And yet, here we are… Bozak IS playing like a better player, even better than before. What’s changed? What’s the biggest change?
    Babcock.
    I have no evidence to back this up, of course. But I think some players, smart players, are more capable than others of transforming their game in the presence of a great coach.

    So, yes, many of us were clearly wrong about Bozak.
    But at the same time, it isn’t really apples to apples. I can’t help but wonder if Bozak would have, indeed, fallen apart after the Kessel trade… if Carlyle was still coaching him.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      I kind of assume it has something to do with Bozak being more of an unselfish player. He came up through a different route and has a good education so I think he was probably more focused on winning, not point totals. He’s always appeared very genuine. He let Kessel be the star and did whatever was necessary to help. Now that Kessel is gone, I think Bozak is able to spread his wings and I’m sure Babcock/Lou encourages it. I’m willing to admit I was also wrong but I feel his game has always been more about attempting to fill the role expected of him.

  • Greg Fenton

    “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.”

    And since being traded, with the exception of a playoff run, Kessel’s offense has dipped. Only 26 goals and 59 points last year, only 3 goals in his first 12 games this year…..I think we now know who the REAL offensive star of that duo was.

  • macqus

    One thing to remember about the “with/without” numbers for a player like Bozak is that sometimes he would come on just to do a defensive zone faceoff. When that’s your role, your offensive rate stats are going to look terrible: win the draw, clear the zone, and get off the ice in ~5 seconds, or lose the draw and spend the next 30 seconds trying to get out of the zone and eat a bunch of corsi and goal minuses.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      I remember an article showing that his faceoff were extremely average, if not, slightly above average a few years back. Not sure what they are sitting at now but I do admit that he hasn’t been necessarily bad in that regard and he has always been at least one of the top guys on the team.

  • DukesRocks

    I never understood why people dumped on Bozak. I always thought of him as a solid number 2 centre, playing on bad defensive Leaf teams. I never saw him as a floater as well but a hard worker. I’ve never been an advance stats guy, I trust my eyes to tell me about the character and creative skills of a player. To me, my focus is skating, shooting, passing, vision, handles, and 50/50 battles. If I put all the skills I just mention into a category, hockey is all about possession and creativity for me. In addition, if the player is a centre, faceoffs are key as well. After watching a player, game after game, year after year, you begin to draw certain expectation in your mind, when that player is on the ice. You begin to see his characteristics and habits to the point… where you see the play develop before it happens. I think the best way to describe what I mean is… when EE or Bautista come to the plate, you see the location of the pitch and the start of the swing and you know a HR is about to happen. You sorta have that expectation/premonition everytime that player comes to bat because you’ve seen it happen so often.

    This is why I’m so excited about Marner. I’ve seen him in London and now the Leafs and the kid blows my mind because you see goals happen that you weren’t expecting to happen. There are no stats that can document creativity.

    When I watch Bozak, I know he’s good, because I trust my eyes.

  • Tigon

    I think a couple things have happened:
    1) Switching Carlyle out for Babcock – everyone has improved
    2) Players tend to default to the best player with the puck, no Kessel so Bozak takes chances
    3) Bozak isn’t getting the 1st pair match ups all the time anymore
    4) Kadri is starting to take some of the defensive responsibility off Bozak’s plate as is the 4th line
    5) All of the above = a better (positioned for success) Bozak post-Kessel

    JVR is still on his flank and Marner is, or at least will be, as equally offensively talented as Kessel but plays a complete 200ft game; usually the first back on that line.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I think the biggest reason some fans have been disappointed in Bozak is the lack of a dominating center on the Leafs. Not since Matts Sundin have we had one. Expecting Bozak to fulfill that role was unreasonable, though understandable. I don’t believe he is getting so called sheltered minutes. As our best faceoff guy before the addition of Smith he was taking most of the defensive zone draws against the best lines the other teams could ice. Playing the penalty kill.

    Bozak is a reasonable average second line center (now top nine) with added skill on faceoffs and penalty kill. A valuable addition to the Leafs until someone better comes along.