MONTREAL - College free agents are a low-risk, high-reward gamble that usually reap very little fruit in the National Hockey League. But in the case of Tyler Bozak, signed as a free agent out of the University of Denver, the gamble has paid off about as well as anyone with the Leafs, then Brian Burke and Ron Wilson steering the ship, could have envisioned back in April of 2009.
The crafty 6-foot-1 middleman from Regina has cast aside the odds and become a viable NHL player, one who (rightly or wrongly) has risen to the first line centre gig in Toronto, this for a player who went undrafted out of the British Columbia Hockey League.
Breaking free of Andrei Markov in the second frame of Tuesday's opener, Bozak would beat Carey Price with the shorthanded marker that would swing the opening night festivities for the Leafs, the go-ahead goal in what proved a not so pretty 4-3 victory.
"I think mainly just because I'm not a really flashy player out there," Bozak told TSN.ca of the doubts he's continually had to overcome, including those in recent years in regards to his viability as the centreman to Phil Kessel. "People expect a first line centre to go out there and bang with the other team and put up huge points, but I think I've found a role with the team here that works with the guys I'm playing with. It doesn't matter to me what anybody outside the room says, just the people close to me and the guys inside the room. I know they believe in me to do the job and that's all that matters to me."
Martin St. Louis rose from the University of Vermont into an eventual scoring champ at the age of 37. But for every success story in the form of St. Louis or even Bozak, there are dozens upon dozens who fall short in their attempts to leap from college into the NHL.
The Leafs tried their luck with the likes of Brayden Irwin and Christian Hanson among others, only finding a winning hand in Bozak, who has carved out a valuable role within the organization, signing a five-year deal worth $21 million this past summer.
"I got a really good opportunity when I got here with Ron Wilson and Brian Burke," Bozak recalled. "I can't thank those guys enough. And then luckily enough, Randy came in here and liked what he saw with me. You never know what's going to happen when you get a new coach, but I think he likes what I do and what I bring to the table. I've just gotta keep trying to get better every year and keep moving forward."
The doubts haven't stopped for Bozak. Questions linger about his potency for the gig he currently occupies, the organization ultimately deeming him a better fit for the roster than Mikhail Grabovski, who was bought out this summer.
"I don't read into much in the media or those bloggers that chirp me," Bozak sniped of the social media chatter. "It's funny to me. Not one thing that someone I don't know says is going to bother me at all. It's Twitter. You can say whatever you want to anyone. It'll never bother me. I find it quite funny actually."
Bozak may never be a perfect fit for the role he owns, but his rise from an undrafted college free agent into a more than capable NHL centre is worth taking notice of.
The scene for was striking for the "déjà vu" it reeked of. Back in January of 2011, George Parros, then a member of Randy Carlyle's Anaheim Ducks, dropped the gloves with Colton Orr, a formulaic battle of two heavyweights. The scrap ended shortly after it began. Parros delivered a right-hand to Orr that would send him thundering to the ground, his face landing square on the Air Canada Centre ice.
The now 31-year-old Orr would miss the remainder of that season with a concussion, one that nearly cost him his career in the year that followed.
In a disturbing role reversal Tuesday at the Bell Centre, it was Parros landing chin-first on the ice after a brief tangle with Orr, their second bout of the game and one of five on the night between the two teams. "It was the same type of thing," said Carlyle after the game. "It wasn't a punch, it was where the guy fell down and unfortunately hit his chin and his face on the ice. It's unfortunate. Those are tough things."
The scene began after a series of tussles between Carter Ashton and members of the Canadiens, including Brandon Prust and Jarred Tinordi. Feeling he had been grabbed by P.K. Subban, Orr confronted the Montreal defender before wrestling with Parros once more. "It's scary," Orr said. "Ice isn't going to give."
Like Orr, Parros suffered a concussion as a result of the play, but was alert and conscious at a local hospital following the game.
2. Special Teams edge
Special teams were a point of pride for the Leafs last season and loomed large for the club in the opener this season. James van Riemsdyk opened the scoring with a power-play goal, Bozak beat Price with the go-ahead shorthanded goal and the Toronto penalty kill erased all four Montreal opportunities. "I thought our special teams were the difference in the game," Carlyle observed afterward. "The shorthanded goal kind of turned everything in our favour. And our power-play got us going."
The Leafs had the second-best penalty kill in 2013 and the 14th ranked power-play, both factors that helped the team reach the postseason for the first time in nine years.
3. Ranger makes 'emotional' return to the NHL
Paul Ranger knew it would be emotional. Playing in his first regular season NHL game since October 22, 2009, a long journey that saw him out of hockey entirely for nearly three years, Ranger couldn't help but to be swept up with emotion in the lead-up to his Leafs debut on Tuesday night. "It was emotional at first," he told TSN.ca after a 20-minute performance which saw him on the ice for the Canadiens first goal. "Just being back and knowing where I am on my journey."
Warming up in the underbelly of the Bell Centre before the game, Ranger was hit with emotion. "I knew it was going to come," he said smiling. "I knew at some point I was going to just feel emotional and it was okay. It's okay to do that because it's special."
4. Reimer gets the opening night gig
Carlyle called it a "hunch". Opting for James Reimer against the Canadiens in lieu of local boy Jonathan Bernier, Carlyle was rewarded with a sturdy 34-save performance and opening night win. "You always want to be the guy that starts it off," Reimer said before the game.
The method behind the hunch for Carlyle was the performance of the incumbent no. 1 against Montreal last season, the 25-year-old posting a 1.85 goals against average and .948 save percentage, also offering a 37-save shutout in his only appearance in Montreal.
Of his battle with Bernier for the starting gig, Reimer said it hadn't crossed his mind in Tuesday's action. "When I'm in there right now during games, I'm not competing against anybody on my team," he said. "That's not what it's about. I'm competing for my teammates. I'm competing against the other team, not against the guy sitting beside me."
5. Bozak on Kessel
Phil Kessel stole the day when he agreed to an 8-year extension with the Leafs on Tuesday morning. Asked for the ingredient in Kessel's game that was perhaps overlooked, Bozak responded with an element that was on striking display during the postseason, one that saw Kessel post four goals and six points in seven games. "I think maybe some people don't think he has a ton of compete in him, but we in the room know he does," Bozak told TSN.ca. "He puts up those points every single year for a reason."
61 - Shot attempts for the Leafs.
5-0-1 - Career record for James Reimer in the month of October.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"It's funny to me. Not one thing that someone I don't know says is going to bother me at all. It's Twitter. You can say whatever you want to anyone. It'll never bother me. I find it quite funny actually."
-Tyler Bozak on the criticism he receives in social media.
The Leafs visit Philadelphia for the Flyers home opener on Wednesday night.