Things shouldn't have been easy for Tyler Bozak this season.
On July 2nd, centerman Tim Connolly signed a 2-year contract with the Leafs worth $9.5M, Mikhail Grabovski was coming off a career year with the Leafs and was called the team's most valuable and consistent player by his coach during his end of season press conference, and Bozak had posted an unspectacular 32 points in 82 games.
The 25 year old should have been a third line player and his -29 rating last season seemed to suggest that even that spot might be in jeopardy.
"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder
and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the
Renaissance. In Switerzland they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years
of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock." -Orson Welles, The Third Man
Adversity can bring out the best in people -- it certainly seems to have had that effect on Bozak.
Expectations for Bozak heading into this season were modest, at best: Win faceoffs, play well defensively, chip in some points where possible. Few, if any, were counting on the kind of production he's given us thus far.
In 43 games this season, Bozak has put up 30 points (just 2 shy of his season totals from last year) and is a +6. Granted, his most common linemates have been Kessel and Lupul, both of whom are in the top 10 in NHL scoring this season, but Bozak's ability to play up in the lineup has given Ron Wilson the ability to spread his scoring through three lines.
Despite skating down in the lineup, Connolly is 5th among regular Leaf forward in points per 60 minutes of icetime.
As much as Leaf fans lament the absence of a true first line center, the Leafs have had some strong production from the trio of Grabovski, Connolly, and Bozak.
Bozak's basic statistics look eerily similar to flavour-of-the-week Sam Gagner's. Despite Gagner's 11 points in 2 games, he has only 3 points more than Bozak and has played 2 more games. Is Gagner a better player with a much higher ceiling? Yeah, he is. Is he so much better that we should be trying to build a package of futures in our minds that might entice Edmonton to part with Gagner? Probably not worth the effort.
The truth is that with Bozak, the Leafs are actually reasonably deep down the middle of the ice. He's a solid 2/3 center who can be effective up or down in the lineup and he does a lot of the little things well. With another season at a cap hit of only $1.5M, he's the kind of cost-effective player that every lineup needs.
This year's Leaf roster has had more surprises than the Senators have season ticket holders and Bozak's strong performance thus far has to be considered one of them.