The Toronto Maple Leafs are entering the off-season with six unrestricted free agents, and a few holes to fill. Right-handed defense will get most of the coverage, but they also need to shore up their center depth behind Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. Very few options are going to be available in free agency, so today let’s look at why the Leafs should simply re-sign Tyler Bozak.
What Tyler Bozak Brings
After eight seasons with the Leafs, Bozak is a known commodity in Toronto. An efficient point producer, but a terrible defensive player, Bozak can be a tough player to evaluate. Which is why we can turn to Goals Above Replacement (GAR). This tries to take everything players do into account. From point production to defence, to Faceoffs, and even more.
With all that information we get a single value estimation of player talent, and we can compare a player’s results to those around them. This gives us an idea of what tier a player is in. Let’s look at Bozak’s results.
Bozak’s individual GAR is a lot like his individual inputs. No elite skill, just decent enough in every aspect to be a really effective player. Even strength offence is obviously his best skill, but still, nothing to write home about. His next best skill is on the power-play, where he is a good passenger on the Leafs first unit. Then there’s the faceoff circle, where he has excelled over the past few years. Finally, there’s his defensive value. In the past, he has been a defensive liability, however, over the past three seasons Babcock has masked his defensive deficiencies with softer usage. As a result, his provides a small amount of defensive value too. Altogether, these inputs make Bozak an effective NHL player, worth about 10 goals (or two wins) above replacement.
As for the players around him, 10 goals above replacement put’s Bozak in a much higher tier than most people would expect. His comparables include some established centres like Kyle Turris and Derick Brassard. Then there is a plethora of up and coming centres like Tomas Hertl, Nico Hischier, and Dylan Larkin. In general, Bozak’s comparables are solid second line centres.
Bozak may only be used in a tertiary role, but he exceeds expectations down the line-up. Having players in your line-up who are overqualified for their positions is a must for cup contenders, and if the Leafs re-sign Tyler Bozak their first, second, and third line centre will all be above average in their role.
The next reason for the Leafs to re-sign Tyler Bozak is scarcity. With only two bonafide NHL centermen signed through next season, the Leafs will have no choice but to explore free agency this summer. The problem is, if they are looking for a quality third line centre, they aren’t going to be a lot of options.
The best centre available is obviously John Tavares. If Tavares does choose to leave, it will be the bidding war of the decade. Then a team that fails to poach Tavares will likely go all out for Paul Stastny, who is a passable first line centre. After that, the market thins out. Bozak is the best of the rest, and Derek Ryan and Tomas Plekanec are the only others who a contender should have near their third line.
Free agency is always risky, and there are only a few options worth considering in this years UFA crop. Tavares will draw everyone’s attention, and I’ll touch on him at the end, but the most realistic scenario for the Leafs is to look elsewhere. With that in mind, Bozak has proven to excel in his role, and this soft centre market he is one of only a few that can. Furthermore, he has a projected cap hit below three million dollars, great value for one of the only good players available. The Leafs are going to have to explore free agency anyway, and with not much else out there, Bozak is one of the Leafs best options.
The final reason the Leafs should re-sign Tyler Bozak is for flexibility. The most common counterpoints to my idea of bringing Bozak back will be around two flashier names. The first will be that the Leafs should sign Tavares, and the second will be that they should just move William Nylander to centre. But re-signing Tyler Bozak doesn’t have to get in the way of either possibility, it will just make them more flexible in these scenarios.
Imagine a world where the Leafs do attract John Tavares. Why not just use Bozak as a fourth line centre then? He has already proven his ability to beat up on weak competition, that would only get amplified in a fourth line role. For cap reasons, he could probably only stick around for one year, but Matt Cane’s projections only have Bozak on a one-year deal anyways. For that one season, nobody could roll four lines as well as the Leafs. Furthermore, injuries can pop up at any point in the NHL season. If injuries are to strike, Bozak can easily fill a third line role, or even a second if he has too.
This reasoning also applies to the possibility that Nylander get’s shifted to centre. Again Bozak could be the best fourth line centre the NHL has seen, and he can always move up the line-up in case of an injury. He can also act as a safety net if the Leafs would like to go this route. Nylander has looked great in small samples at centre, but what if he can’t do it for a full season? Bozak certainly can, and he can be the backup plan in case something doesn’t work out with Nylander. Either way, if the Leafs re-sign Tyler Bozak it gives them one of the deepest centre cores in the league and plenty of flexibility, which Babcock loves. Altogether the Leafs have plenty to gain and nothing to lose by re-signing Tyler Bozak.