SUNRISE – The job that was supposed to belong to high-priced free agent signee Tim Connolly remains in the hands of Tyler Bozak.
The 25-year-old has registered 19 points in the last 20 games playing pivot for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the Leafs first line. And with 24 points already this season, Bozak is just eight points from matching the total he had all of last season in an underwhelming sophomore campaign.
“I think the main thing for me is just confidence,” he told the Leaf Report. “I'm confident now that I can get the job done out there; I can get points, I can keep my own end clean and whenever you're playing with confidence you're a way better player.”
Several improvements have sparked the breakthrough third season, many of which stem from greater accountability in the defensive zone.
Struggling to put points on the board early last season, Bozak admittedly cheated in his own end, looking to jump-start the production expected of a first-line centre. “But you find out the hard way that that just results in more goals against and less goals for you,” he said. The minus-29 rating, which stuck like a scarlet letter to his name (and was amongst the worst in the NHL) was a source of real frustration and top priority for cleanup this fall. A plus-5 rating thus far demonstrates progress in that regard. “Obviously they're still going to be mishaps,” Bozak said. “We're an offensive line and we want to produce offensively and not spend a lot of time in our zone so there's going to be times where we give up some goals, but we're plus players this year which is nice.”
Offensively in the past, there was a strong tendency on Bozak's part to force-feed Kessel the puck. Running shotgun with a regular 30-goal man, he felt the need and obvious pressure to find his high-powered linemate as much as possible. “Early in my career I would force it to Phil all the time,” Bozak conceded, “and even he doesn't want me to do that; he wants me to take my shots when I have my opportunities.” Without a goal in the opening 14 games, Bozak has found twine seven times now in the last 20 games. “I'm more confident now that I can score goals. Obviously still a pass-first guy and I'm going to be looking to make the pass first, but I'm not going to force the stuff like I used to,” he said.
According to Bozak, the offensive pitfalls – which saw him post just 15 goals and 32 points in 2010-2011 despite logging over 19 minutes a game – tied back to what became a constant mental struggle in the defensive end, a circular effect considering the initial source of the miscues (cheating for offence). “I think last year wasn't [so much] confidence [that] I couldn't score,” he explained, “it was just every time I was on the ice I thought I was going to get scored on, more so than thinking I was going to score or our line was going to score. And this year every time we get a shift I think there's a good chance that we can get a goal between the three of us.”
Kessel (41 points) and Lupul (38) sit comfortably amongst the league leaders in scoring this season, primarily (and rather unexpectedly) with the third-year centre in the middle. Connolly was inked to a two-year contract this past summer, specifically to fill the first-line centre void, but with injuries and the line's continued success without him there's been little reason for Ron Wilson switch things up. He aimed ever so briefly last week to get “more the look of what we expected” with Connolly in between Kessel and Lupul, but after two periods reverted back to Bozak.
“I was able to get on [the line] at the right time when Loops and Phil got hot,” Bozak noted. “They obviously don't want to break up a line that's doing well so I think a lot of the credit goes out to the wingers for that.”
In addition to the flexibility he's provided down the middle, Bozak has also recently returned to the penalty-kill – a role he filled with some success last season – while remaining a quiet, but effective presence on the league's 3rd ranked powerplay (nine points).
Brian Burke claimed to have added a player of first-round caliber when he signed Bozak as a free agent from the University of Denver. With his performance so far this season, Bozak is beginning to justify that hype.
Five Points on Ron Wilson
1. Ron Wilson's contract extension – believed to be a one-year deal according to TSN's Darren Dreger – caught many off-guard, but according to Wilson the deal was finalized at some point in early December. Burke offered some interesting insight into his decision to extend Wilson on Monday afternoon. “I've got news for you,” Burke said. “If the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Ron Wilson he'd be working again in about two weeks. This is what people don't realize; they're chanting ‘Fire Wilson' [last season]. The first thing is, is that guy going to be hired right away by somebody and I think the answer is yes…like every coach he's worked in several places, [but] he hasn't been out of work very long and there's a reason for that, the hockey community believes in this guy. And the second thing is people say ‘Fire the coach' and you say ‘Okay, that's plan A, we're going to fire the coach, what's plan B?' Who's out there with better coaching credentials than Ron Wilson? To me, this is the right thing. I think Ron earned it and I'm happy for him.”
2. The Leafs have missed the playoffs in each of Wilson's three seasons – they sit sixth currently this season – but according to Burke, much of that load rests on his shoulders. “This has been the hardest period of my professional life as far as waiting for this team to finally round into the type of team that I wanted to put on the ice,” he said. “And I think we have that group now…I've been through the turnaround process before. One time it took four years to get to where we wanted to be (Vancouver), one time it took two years (Anaheim). No, I'm disappointed in how long it's taken me to do this.”
3. Those fortunate to find a place in Wilson's good books have his constant backing. Bozak is among them. “Ron's been awesome towards me,” Bozak said. “He's given me a chance every year and obviously sees something in me and is confident in me. He's putting me out there in situations where I never knew I'd be out in the NHL. I'm confident now. I'm confident I can go out in those situations and get the job done. He helped build my confidence a ton for sure.”
4. Darryl Boyce is another to have caught Wilson's eye with his relentless job pursuit last season. Boyce turned a one-game last minute call-up into a 46-game stint. “It's like everyone, you've got to build a trust with people and build a good rapport,” Boyce said. “It started early on in my first 10 games and then he put a little bit more trust in me the next 10 and it just sort of gradually built from there; from the first game being back [with the Leafs] against Buffalo and seeing that he had no fear of putting me on the ice with a minute left in the game in a one-goal game. I'm grateful for that and glad to be put in those positions on the ice.”
5. Contract extension and all, job security has hardly grown for Wilson and he knows that. “I've seen lots of coaches get fired this year with lots of term left so the pressure doesn't change,” he said. “I could get fired next week for all I know. I have a little bit of combat pay coming in other words.”
-The Leafs placed John-Michael Liles on IR with concussion-like symptoms. While they've yet to acknowledge the correlation, Liles took a huge hit from Sabres forward Paul Gaustad last Thursday, missing the following game in Long Island with a sore neck. Ron Wilson said Liles was feeling better today, but not well enough to go (he did not skate). "Right now it's best that he just sits out and stays away from the rink for a couple of days, simple as that," Wilson said.
-Liles joins Mike Komisarek (arm), Matthew Lombardi (shoulder), Mike Brown (back), and Colby Armstrong (concussion) on the injured reserve. Phillipe Dupuis is also still nursing a broken thumb.
-James Reimer makes his fourth consecutive start in goal. Reimer and the Leafs have won their last two games.
-The Panthers beat the Leafs in their only meeting this season, winning by a 5-1 final on November 8th. Stephen Weiss won't play for the Panthers because of an upper-body injury. Jose Theodore is expected to start in goal.
-Nazem Kadri has scored in both games since being recalled from the Marlies.
Lupul Bozak Kessel
Frattin Grabovski Kulemin
MacArthur Connolly Kadri
Boyce Steckel Crabb
Injured: Komisarek, Lombardi, Brown, Armstrong, Dupuis, Liles.