TORONTO – He logged a season-high of nearly 24 minutes – more than any other forward – tallied an assist, assumed a 40 per cent workload on the draw, helped kill off two penalties, saw action on the first power play unit and was trusted in the final minute to protect a one-goal lead.
Tyler Bozak may not be the ideal candidate for the role, but nevertheless, the 27-year-old holds a valuable stake as the Leafs' top line centre and unquestioned tag-team partner to Phil Kessel. Bozak leads all Toronto forwards in ice-time, ranks fourth on the team with 11 goals and 25 points, sees action on the first unit of the penalty kill and power play and is the go-to-guy for nearly every important draw.
An impending unrestricted free agent this summer, he has obvious value, but at what price? The answer to that looming offseason question will settle his future or lack thereof with the Leafs.
"I'm not really looking into that stuff right now," said Bozak, in conversation with TSN.ca on Tuesday afternoon. "It's more just focusing on the year at hand and trying to do our best to get as far as we can [as a team]. When the season ends and that time comes, I'll deal with it then. I've just got to try and set myself up good, keep playing well, and then the rest should work out fine."
Determining the proper price-point for Bozak will be the challenge.
The Leafs will not overpay for his services. They understand his strengths and limitations and recognize that his statistical value is likely inflated by the role he is required to play, in large part a representation of positional need within the organization. Signed as a free agent out of the University of Denver, Bozak has certainly proven himself a worthwhile addition during his four-plus years in Toronto, but he will remain in the fold only at the right price.
That price-point – at least from the Leafs' perspective – will not be the going rate of a prototypical number one centre, but likely lies just south of there, perhaps in the neighbourhood of the $3.5 million David Desharnais garnered annually from Montreal over a four-year term. While the two offer different dimensions and skill-sets (Desharnais was also a restricted free agent), there are similarities. Like Bozak, Desharnais turns 27 in September and has offered promise down the middle for the Canadiens, just behind Tomas Plekanec in the second-line centre spot. Both players had career years in their second full NHL seasons; unquestionably the more creative and skillful, Desharnais amassed 60 points for Montreal, while Bozak, the more complete of the two, registered 47 in Toronto.
Because he shoulders a greater load for the Leafs than Desharnais does for the Canadiens – he plays more, including on the penalty kill – the Bozak camp could shoot for a higher number too, perhaps even looking toward the recent contract leveled to Mikhail Grabovski, who signed for five years at an annual average of $5.5 million. Grabovski is the more talented player, but has seen his value dip considerably this year, outplayed, albeit in a vastly different role, by Bozak.
Future flexibility will factor into the Leafs' determination process. In assigning a price-point for Bozak, they'll want to find a number that not only fits within a cap that is set to shrink next season – $64 million – and is uncertain beyond that, but also one that could be moved down the line, if necessary. The Leafs will have nearly $20 million in available cap space this summer with the likes of Nazem Kadri (restricted free agent), Cody Franson (restricted), and Carl Gunnarsson (restricted) among others that include Bozak and Clarke MacArthur (unrestricted) still to sign. Only four players are locked up beyond 2013-2014.
Of additional importance as it relates to Bozak's future is that of Kessel, whose contract expires after next season. If the Leafs determine that Bozak is the correct piece at the right price for their future, it would only seem logical that Kessel too fits into the plans. Their fit together is a prime part of Bozak's attraction.
Ultimately, the decision may come down to the player and his preference.
If he opts to chase the pricey, going rate of a first-line pivot, he will be playing elsewhere. But if he deems his fit, role and value to the Leafs as most important, then there's a chance he'll stay put.
"You never know," Bozak said, before adding, "I want to stay here obviously.
"They show confidence in me [and] I'd love to play as big a role as I can. I want to be out there as much as I can be out there, play big minutes, power play, penalty kill and all that stuff. Hopefully I'll be able to do that still."
Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss, Mike Ribeiro, and Andy McDonald are among the other available options in free agency at centre if the Leafs opt for a course that does not include Bozak.