While Nazem Kadri has hogged the majority of the spotlight heading into the 2010 NHL season, another young center is quietly slipping under the radar in Toronto.
In a market where the Maple Leafs are under constant scrutiny, it is rare to see a player with less than 40 games experience named to the first line.
However, Tyler Bozak will do just that as he begins this season centering the top line between Phil Kessel, and Nikolai Kulemin.
The 24-year-old from Regina has risen to the top of the world’s hockey capital faster than anyone expected.
After scoring 27 points in his first 37 NHL games last season, and showing plenty of chemistry with the team’s new sniper [Kessel] down the stretch, Bozak is suddenly expected to play a major role in bringing the blue-and-white back into Stanley Cup contention.
Coach Ron Wilson, not known for making predictions, has already pointed to Bozak and Kessel as the team’s most offensive dynamic duo heading into the season.
“Bozak is stronger, he’s more prepared for the battle … if Phil scores 40, then Tyler should be in on a lot of them,” Wilson said to the Toronto Star, Wednesday. “So maybe 50, 60 points would be a good season for Tyler. And I’m sure he can build on that too.”
This goal may have seemed far-fetched at this time last year, as Bozak headed into his first NHL camp an un-drafted free-agent.
He was coming off of a NCAA season with the University of Denver where he tore the meniscus in his left knee, and played only 19 games.
The young center worked all summer to rehabilitate his injured knee, and quickly made a name for himself, scoring a goal, and adding four assists in six games during the 2009 pre-season.
“I got to play in all situations and show what I could do,” Bozak told the Toronto Star at the time.
If the Leafs weren’t roughly $6 million U.S over the salary cap, Bozak would have likely started the year up with the team.
“He’ll probably have to go down because of numbers,” coach Ron Wilson said to the Toronto Star. “Based on the way he played in training camp, he’s certainly worthy of playing in the NHL, but we may not have room at the beginning.”
“If somebody doesn’t play well, he has a real good shot to get called back up,” said Wilson.
Sure enough, after the Leafs dismal start to the year, Bozak was inserted in the lineup October 13th, against the Colorado Avalanche. He registered his first NHL point, assisting on Francois Beauchemin’s goal, before being sent back down to the AHL the following day.
He would have to wait until January 12 before getting another shot, effectively ending his career with the Toronto Marlies. Bozak, who had bulked up to 175 pounds after starting the year 10 pounds lighter, made an immediate impact.
Playing with Kessel, he showed the speed and play-making ability the Leafs were lacking, and helped them go 17-15-5 in the last three months of the season.
A rare highlight during a horrendous season for the Leafs was watching the chemistry grow between the two, alongside left-winger Kulemin.
The organization even named Bozak’s first NHL goal [on January 14 against the Flyers], the play of the year, as he undressed a defenceman and put a wrist shot top corner in an amazing individual effort.
With another year set to begin, the pressure will be on Bozak to deliver offensively, and continue to progress along with his new roommate, Kessel.
“Phil wants the puck all the time and I think he’s got Bozie in his pocket with that right now,” Wilson told The Globe and Mail, Thursday. “That’s smart of Phil to do that – you want to play with somebody who’s going to give you the puck all the time. That’s right now the most compatible player for him to play with.”
Both Bozak and Kessel worked through nagging injuries to start last year, and spent the off-season in personally-tailored training programs in order to insure their durability this time around.
“I got back up to 175 pounds [by the end of the season] and now I’m back around 195, which is where I should be,” Bozak told the Toronto Star Wednesday.
He has nothing but praise for Leafs’ strength coach Anthony Belza, as well as his new best friend, [Kessel.]
“He helps me out a lot,” Bozak said. “He tells me what it’s going to be like. The teams we play against, the guys we’re going to be up against, what their tendencies are. He’s seen it a lot more than I have.”