Tyler Bozak has cemented an odd legacy with the Leafs. He’ll forever live in infamy for being the poster boy of the Carlyle era, and then all of sudden that reputation being flipped upside down once an actually intelligent coach came along and knew how to deploy him properly. He’s probably one of the most successful college free agent signings in a long time, and even then, he still isn’t *that* good.
At this point, he’s the longest tenured Leaf, and his contract is in it’s final year. Many are wondering what should be done about his contract, whether they should re-sign him or let him walk at the end of the season. A trusted Sportsbook like Intertops suggests the Leafs are a contender, but what should they do with their veteran forward?
Usually when a player on an expiring contract is traded, it’s because the team is prepared to get slightly worse in order to get assets for a player, and make sure they lose him for nothing. This is almost never done by a playoff team, with rare occasions like Kevin Shattenkirk last season. However, the Leafs have a rare chance to get assets for him, improving in the long run, while also getting better now.
1. He’s Very Bad Defensively
It’s no secret that Bozak is very bad defensively. I wrote about it a couple weeks ago that he’s been pretty bad this season, and that he’s traditionally a bad player defensively. Since entering the league in 2009, only one player with at least 5000 minutes has a lower score-adjusted 5v5 CA/60 than Tyler Bozak, and that’s Rasmus Ristolainen.
Even looking at some of his linemates in recent years, they all improve when they aren’t with him. James van Riemsdyk has one season since joining Toronto where he has a 5v5 Relative CF% above +1.5, and that was 2015-16, where he was primarily on a line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, and not with Bozak. Phil Kessel, who was never really a play driver, has a 49.74% 5v5 CF% since joining Pittsburgh. While Bozak and Kessel were together in Toronto, Kessel’s 5v5 CF% was 47.44%. As for Marner, we don’t really have a large enough sample to work with to make any judgements for him.
The good news is that, unlike a couple seasons ago, the Leafs have an opportunity to ship him out, and still get a good haul. Last season, he had 55 points in 78 games, and this season he has 6 in 11 so far. If the Leafs can try to keep his point totals up, he can be looked at as a relatively cheap offensive center for a playoff run, and try to hide his defensive flaws, since most eye-testers think he has a good stick.
And unlike last season, when the Leafs lost him to injury for 4 games, and had a bit of a conundrum down the middle, they have some more depth to replace him adequately, and they might even improve defensively in this case. Which brings me to my next point.
2. He Can Be Replaced Relatively Easily
Last season, when Tyler Bozak got injured, the Leafs had a bit of an issue. First, they tried Nylander at center, and he struggled a bit (albeit it was his first time trying it on a competitive team), and then they resorted to some combination of Byron Froese, Frederick Gauthier, and Ben Smith. They were weak, and struggled if one of Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Bozak was hurt.
This year, it’s a bit of a different situation. While they technically have no center depth, as after Bozak, it’s Moore and Fehr. But, they have a lot of options on the wing who could be converted to center, which has been proven with Babcock’s experiment of having different players take faceoffs on their strong side (Matthews/Nylander, Bozak/Marner, Kadri/Komarov), and it’s success (the worst of that bunch is Matthews at 51.7%). Marleau is actually a center according to his profile on NHL.com. Nylander was developed as a center, so he could probably be used, except that would require playing him apart from Matthews, which has been one of the most dominant duos in the league this season, at least in terms of driving play. Komarov is also a part time center, so he could be another option, and is also a huge step up in terms of defense.
They also have Miro Aaltonen, who did a great job in training camp, and got a really good. The only reason he probably didn’t make the team was because he wasn’t the prototypical fourth line center that Babcock is looking for, but he could probably do a good enough job in a sheltered third line role with JVR and Marner. And this is assuming that they don’t get a center in return for him.
3. They Could Trade Him for a Replacement
Obviously, how the trade would work would depend on the return. They could make it a one for one (hopefully not in the style of the Oilers), they could chip in another asset to improve at center, or they could make a slight “downgrade” and get another asset as well.
And their are certainly some options on the market. Alex Galchenyuk always seems to be in the rumours, and, division rivalry aside, Bozak for Galchenyuk could work for both teams. The Habs would improve their center depth, the Leafs would get another young player as a part of the rebuild, and Galchenyuk would finally be able to play at center. Also, this seems like a trade dumb enough that Marc Bergevin would bite.
They could also get pennies on the dollar on Vadim Shipachyov, except he’s still a bit of an unknown quantity on a $4.5 million cap hit, so there’s some concern there. But, his cap hit isn’t that much more than Bozak’s, and ends next season, so it fits in the pre-Matthews and Marner extension Cup window. However, Bozak wouldn’t necessarily fit in Vegas’ plan, so they’d probably ask for picks and prospects in addition to Bozak as a part of the trade, which would be a bit too much.
There’s also the big fish in Matt Duchene, but considering the insane asking price from Sakic, that might be difficult. But he might be the best fit if the Leafs want to truly upgrade down the middle. Just imagine:
That’s not a bad top nine. But, that would probably require at least a 1st, Bozak, and two of Carrick, Kapanen, and Leivo. Depending on how comfortable the Leafs are with that haul could depend on if they attempt that.
You could also ride out the year and get Tavares in the summer too.
4. There’s Always a Market for Centers
Center is probably the only position where the market never dies. Look at the other positions in the league. There’s an excess of wingers, so you never really get a good return. Aside from top 2 defensemen, which nobody trades, there isn’t much of a market there. And a majority of the goalies in the league are average, so aside from 10 or so, there probably isn’t a goalie worth pursuing that you don’t already have.
However, teams are always looking for an NHL center. Look at the return some of the last legit centers have gotten. Derek Stepan fetched the 7th overall pick and Anthony DeAngelo. Ryan Strome got the Islanders Jordan Eberle. Jonathan Drouin got the Habs Mikhail Sergachev and a 2nd. The Leafs gave a 2nd and Byron Froese for Brian Boyle. Martin Hanzal got the Coyotes a 1st, 2nd, conditional 4th, and Grayson Downing, much to the dismay of Shane Doan. Not saying that he’s worth this much, but you could probably get a return that is more than his value, especially since he tends to be pretty overrated by the mainstream media, and NHL execs.
Also, there’s a decent amount of teams that need one. The aforementioned Habs, Golden Knights, and Avalanche all are weak down the middle. Pittsburgh just got Riley Sheahan, but how long do you think that lasts before they try and upgrade on that. The Ducks are without Kesler and keep losing Getzlaf. The Coyotes have Stepan, and one of the few worse shot suppressors than Tyler Bozak in Christian Dvorak in their top six. The Kings could use a rental, especially while Jeff Carter is out. The Preds always seem to be in the market for a center. The Rangers depth consists of Zibanejad and Hayes. Their are certainly options.
And some of these teams even have some Bozak connections. Bozak’s went to university in Denver, and played their before signing with the Leafs, so he probably wouldn’t mind the Avs. He could reunite with his old buddy Phil in Pittsburgh. The Ducks make some sense, considering how much Carlyle loved him during his time with the Leafs. This is all speculation, but it definitely makes some sense.
5. It Could Solve Another Problem the Leafs Have
What’s the one thing that the Leafs have too much of? This should be a gimme, considering that the bloggers keep complaining about how some of them aren’t in the lineup.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, it’s that they have too many wingers. Now, why would trading a center help them with their depth on the wing? Well, depending on what happens, it could probably help make room for them.
Say they trade Bozak for an upgrade, and ship off Leivo or Kapanen, or both, as a part of the return. This would help clear up that depth a little bit, and help them improve at center. If they trade Bozak, but just for a pick or a prospect, the Leafs will probably move one of Marleau, Nylander, or Komarov to center, which – you guessed it – opens a spot on the wing for Leivo or Kapanen *without* having to get rid of Babcock’s favourite toy in Matt Martin.
I mean, it’s a good problem to have depth on the wing, as displayed by the fact that two were injured for Saturday’s game, and they just inserted Leivo and Kapanen without missing a beat. But, having too much depth in one area could mean that the Leafs use it to help their depth in another area. I’m not advocating downgrading on player quality to improve depth in other positions, but if the option is there if they can find a trade that works well.