The case of Bozak is a really interesting one. It illustrates, for me, both what works and what doesn’t work about Burke’s “plan”. (Sometimes I think calling this a plan or a rebuild is a discredit to these otherwise noble words).
Bozak was, like a number of current young players in the Leafs organization, picked up after a pretty good career in US college (57 points in 60 games). Burke has likened – I think rightly – signing US college players to entry level contracts as finding a free wallet. Sometimes you might open it up and there will be nothing inside. Other times you might be shocked to find $100. There is little to no risk for a team – especially one as rich as the Maple Leafs – to signing college players to entry level contracts. The costs are minimal – at least for professional sports teams – and they have to give up nothing in return. It is a good bet. Bozak showed some offensive promise and, at this point, seems to be far and away the best player the Leafs have signed through this process of acquiring amateur and minor pro free agents (this includes the European players they have signed). That Bozak looks to be only a third or perhaps – at the very best – a second line centre on a not very deep team should be looked on as a positive. He was acquired for nothing but a bit of cash. No draft picks were given up, no players traded. As such, his signing should be viewed with a success.
But…For reasons that I cannot understand, Bozak was judged by Burke et al. to be good enough to be the number one centre for the Maple Leafs for half the 09-10 season (2nd in ATOI among forwards) and for a substantial part of this season – it is only recently that Grabovski has played enough to pass him for 2nd among forwards in ATOI, and Bozak has still played a few more minutes total. This would have been fine if the Leafs had their 2010 and 2011 draft picks to tank for. Since they didn’t (Phil Kessel trade alert) the question must be asked, is Bozak the best they could do?
I think the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Bozak’s numbers for the Leafs to date, while playing – most of the time – on the team’s supposed number one line: 22G, 36A for 58 points in 116 games played, -33. “Ouch” is all that can be said.
Given the Kessel trade, it was incumbent upon Burke to make the Leafs more competitive in the two seasons in which they lacked first round draft picks. A big step towards this would have been finding a number one centre, if only for two years, to allow the Leafs to score some goals. The Leafs currently sit 21st overall in Goals For – and this high only after their recent run, the only time they have been competitive during these last two seasons. Last season they were 26th. Certainly many, many players would have been an upgrade over Bozak in his current role.
This is not Bozak’s fault. It is a failure of management. The fact that the Leafs have now become somewhat competitive – almost completely because of the first consistent goaltending the team has had in years – doesn’t in anyway lessen this mistake. They still lack a clear number one centre – Grabovski is probably a two at best, and lacks the skill set to make Kessel better, though he is clearly more of a top line player than Bozak – and still rely on a player who is probably not a top 6 forward. Bozak was the supposed defensive cure to Kessel’s wanderings. But, based on numbers more than actual observation – I have not seen enough Leafs games this year – either Kessel is so bad that Bozak can’t do anything to overcome it, or Bozak is pretty terrible defensively himself. (He has been on the ice for well over 90 goals since signing with the Leafs.) With a winger as oblivious to defense as Kessel usually is (I said usually), the Leafs need a centre who can back-check – not to mention set him up – all the time. Bozak is not that answer.
If the Leafs are willing to pursue the policy I think they should – that I have outlined in an earlier post and which I will further describe when the season’s over – then Bozak is a fine Top 6 centre for next year, provided he doesn’t lose his place to a younger or greener player. But if the Leafs – buoyed by this recent aberration of competitiveness – are going to pretend they are a contender next year, they will obviously have to replace him. So my fear is that – lacking a prospect to groom as a future number one centre since Kadri looks very much like a winger at this point – the Leafs will go out and throw too much money and too many years at Brad Richards, or Connolly or somebody worse than Connolly (or maybe make a trade) in order to pretend they are good enough to compete, missing out on acquiring more first line talent through the draft by barely making the playoffs next season.
So that is why I have to look back at Bozak’s time here as a bad thing, as much as it isn’t his fault. He is demonstrated to management that he cannot hold down the role assigned to him – though I’m sure he’d work as a 3, provided he played with some defensively inclined players – and, with the Leafs thinking they could make the playoffs this season, this glaring hole down the middle will convince Burke et al. to go out and sign someone / trade for someone to restart the age old Leafs’ spiral of mediocrity: where they will appear to be a player or two short at each trade deadline, trading futures for veterans, and coming up short in the first through third rounds of the playoffs, every year to infinity.