If Lombardi is Healthy, it's Time to Cut Bozak Loose

Early yesterday morning Leaf fans were informed of the positive news that Matthew Lombardi is planning on attending training camp. Seeing as I've been excited since his acquisition, I quickly posted on Twitter that this meant there would be no place for Tyler Bozak.

If Lombardi is healthy, he will slide into the third line centre position between Armstrong and Kadri. That line will be able to provide the Leafs with plenty of offensive support, as well as checking strength (mostly through Armstrong and Lombardi). Depth at the centre ice position, something that the Leafs have been glaringly lacking, will be a welcome strength now that Lombardi seems to be on the mend. 

Where does that leaves Bozak?

With the new status of Lombardi, the odd man out appears to be Bozak. There seems to be this idea among some Leaf fans that Bozak is a "great utility player" and a "perfect third line centre." People also argue that Bozak is a "great faceoff man" and "good penalty killer." Check out Jordan Bold and his tweets from yesterday to read these delusional theories about Bozak's abilities. 

My reasons for having Nazem Kadri as a third line winger can be seen here, but I'd like to focus on the fact that Bozak is not what people think he is. When Brian Burke signed the highly sought after free agent, it was as a point producing player. During the introductory press conference, his excellent training camp with the Leafs, his Marlie days and his breakout 37 NHL games Leaf management sang the praises of an offensively gifted playmaker who had exceptional hockey sense. Not once was it said that if Bozak failed as a scorer he could check the opposition's skill players, kill penalties and be a great utility player. Unfortunately, Bozak struggled last season and proved that he is not capable of handling the load that is required of a first or second line centre, putting his status as an NHLer in limbo.

Too many times last season an undersized Bozak was pushed off of the puck and was unable to defend against bigger and stronger opposition. This lack of strength and size is detrimental to a player who people think can be a checking centre. Size is not everything though; good undersized checkers are blessed with great speed (see Darren Helm, Matthew Lombardi, Todd Marchant, Vernon Fiddler, Torrey Mitchell, Dominic Moore and John Madden), yet Bozak is nothing more than a decent skater, another knock against his checking ability. To refresh people's memory, Bozak finished last season -29. That horrible number may be a product of playing with Kessel and the flavour of the month winger, but he was poor in his own zone as well.

These weaknesses in Bozak's game also eliminate the argument that he is a strong penalty killer. The Leafs finished with the third worst penalty killing unit in the NHL, a unit in which Bozak was a part of all season. Once again, it is not all of his fault, but he is definitely guilty of performing poorly. Finally, his faceoff skills -- although his percentage was high (54.1%), too many times last season he was unable to win the important faceoff. Numbers are deceiving, as a strong faceoff man wins important draws.

This important faceoff from last season comes to mind (scroll to the 1:57 mark). The Leafs, who were struggling at the time, played a great home game. Mike Brown had just sacrificed himself by blocking a shot, which resulted in broken bones in his hand. Jonas Gustavsson had played well and the Leafs were a won faceoff away from two big points in the standings and a confidence-boosting victory. Bozak lost the draw, the Leafs lost the lead and soon into overtime lost the game. Bozak won too many meaningless faceoffs last season. Faceoff specialists are judged upon situational ability not percentages. 

It seems to me the type of player that fans are longing for: great utility player, strong penalty killer, defensively conscious and excellent faceoff man, is under contract by the Leafs. His name is Mike Zigomanis he can help the Leafs more than College Boy can. However I think neither one will make the roster this season now that the Matthew Lombardi era seems to be upon us. 


Rob Melendez's picture

I 100% Agree Zigomanis should be on the opening night roster, it still baffles me that he was sent down last season after meshing seemingly perfectly into the team. That being said, it wouldn't surprise me to have Lombardi play wing either, while good defensively he's also shown he can be quite dangerous offensively given he had 19 goals in his last close to full season. I suspect Bozak will begin the year on the third line, if he can't handle that someone else will take his spot, but i can't help thinking that if Lombardi comes back he'll have a greater role than our checking center. And while Lombardi is not a finisher his speed and nifty hands could make him a perfect fit to play wing with Kessel and Connolly. What are your thoughts?

Marco Perruzza's picture

I don't think Zigomanis or Bozak should be on the Leafs roster if Lombardi is healthy. I agree that Lombardi can be good offensively, especially on a line with Kadri feeding him. Personally I don't think they'll put Lombardi on the wing, that speed is a better weapon in the middle of the ice backing up blueliners. As stated in the article Bozak is not a checking centre in any way, so yes Lombardi will have a greater role than him. Lupul will play with Kessel and Connolly, and if he fails Kadri will be slotted in. Keep in mind the Leafs finally have depth at centre, if they put Lombardi on the wing they weaken themselves in the middle.

Tanner Kovach's picture

sharks would probably be happy to have Bozak man the 3rd line, if the price was right

Marco Perruzza's picture

Kyle Wellwood (in or out of shape) is a much better option than Bozak. I don't think the price is that high for a soon to be 26 year old, undersized, average skating centre.

Tanner Kovach's picture

But you would think if the sharks wanted wellwood back they wouldve signed him already. He seemed to be a good fit and worked and i dont know why he wasnt resigned. I just have to assume Doug Wilson knows something we dont.

Patrick Storto's picture

25 year old center with one full NHL season under his belt. Had success in his brief time with the Leafs two seasons ago, but strugled in his first full season. Write him off. He can't possibly ever improve and there's no point in sending him to the Marlies because there's no chance he could improve there either, so the only solution is to bump him in favour of an older, much more injury prone and just as inconsistent player.

When Reimer slumps this year, I guess we're cutting him too.

Marco Perruzza's picture

Bozak is a 25 year old centre, one who was twice passed over by all 30 NHL teams in the draft. A player who has had major reconstructive knee surgery. A player who has neither the strength, nor the speed, to be a defensive specialist. A player that, albeit only 25, does not have the ability to be a 1st or 2nd line centre on a team with playoff aspirations. Can he improve? Absolutely. Is he a dime dozen NHL'er? Absolutely.

As for the Marlies, I have no problem with him going to the AHL. My argument was that he is not a fit for the third line with the current Leafs. Lombardi's health is definitely an issue, but if he's healthy (which is something I said many times) he is a significant upgrade. Whether Lombardi is offensively inconsistent is irrelevant, he's proven with his speed to be at worst a defensive centre on a strong team.

Your final point, about cutting Reimer if he struggles (and the struggles must be of the same magnitude of Bozak's horrible season), is difficult. First, you're comparing a goalie to a centre. Second, Reimer is two years younger. Third, Reimer was drafted. Fourth, if Reimer struggles and the Leafs miss the playoffs (one most certainly will follow the other) for the eight consecutive year, than he most certainly should be replaced as the number one goalie.

By your logic Jiri Tlusty, Kyle Wellwood, Jay Harrison, Carlo Colaiacovo and Andrew Raycroft should still be wearing the blue and white. Sometimes the music stops and their aren't enough chairs. With the apparent health of Lombardi, Bozak is the guy standing up looking at everybody sitting down.

Patrick Storto's picture

by your logic Clarke MacArthur and Grabovski shouldn't be wearing NHL jerseys.

Mikhail Grabovski entered last season as a 26 year old undersized center coming off of a horrible second full year in the league. I'm not saying Bozak is going to do what Grabovski did, and he very well might end up like the players you mentioned, but to write off a player completely because he slumped in his second year in the NHL (first full season) is ludicrous regardless of the age.

Marco Perruzza's picture

If you look at my argument I never said Bozak should not be in the NHL. My point is that there is no place for him on the current Leafs. Those two players are not good comparables. To be honest they prove my point considering the Leafs are not their first organizations.

Grabovski found himself in a numbers game (much like Bozak now) in Montreal and they decided that he was expendable. Unlike Bozak, in his first full season he had a promising 20 goal rookie season. Once again, Unlike Bozak, In the season that he struggled he was derailed by injuries. If the Leafs had acquired significant centre ice depth last off season then Grabovski's place would certainly have been in jeopardy. Burke has provided the Leafs with the luxury of proven centres (Connolly and Lombardi) there is no place for Bozak here.

As for MaCarthur, two organizations have moved on from him. At this time last season he was twisting in the wind, hoping for a deal. The difference between him and Bozak (and I can't stress this enough) is that MaCarthur was a highly thought of Major Junior player. A former World Junior Champion with Canada. A relatively early pick (3rd round) who has finally blossomed. Bozak is an undrafted free agent, one who had no pedigree coming into the league. He was so poorly thought of that he went undrafted twice by all 30 teams. Currently, at the age of 25, he is the player now that he will be going forward.

Minnesota just gave up James Sheppard, a 23 year old, top ten draft pick, who has size and speed. Sometimes it doesn't work. Why should the Leafs hold onto Bozak? What will he be long term? Keep in mind he'll be 26 by the time this season ends. How much more rope does he get? If Lombardi is healthy where does he fit in the lineup?

I appreciate your opinion and feedback, but I guess we just disagree. Time will eventually prove one of us right.

Patrick Storto's picture

Prove us right? I'm not sure you get my point. I'm not saying Bozak will be anything more than he is. I'm saying it's crazy to write off Bozak or any player for that matter because he struggled in only his first full year in the NHL. That's expected. Not many players can jump right into the NHL and be a stud. And you have to let the fact that no one drafted him go. Sure no one wanted him at the draft, but the Leafs were not the only team that tried to sign him as a UFA, quite a few teams were interested.

George Prax's picture

What league do you watch where players in their first year (at 25) are expected to struggle? Most NHL players come into the league after being DRAFTED at 21-22 or even younger, and they're still on a short leash for the most part. Bozak played his first year at 25, after NOT being drafted, and you think that the team should take it slow with him? I'm not suggesting they should give up on him as I don't really have all the facts, but it's definitely not commonplace for teams to expect their 25-year old forwards to struggle, in fact, at 25, that's when a player usually starts to reach his prime, not get worse.

Patrick Storto's picture

There's also not many teams that throw a rookie center on the first line and say if you don't succeed here immediately you're finished.

Regardless of age, no player plays to their full potential in the first year of their career. A rookie is a rookie and a rookie isn't defined by age. Rookies make rookie mistakes, they have to adapt to the league.

And who said they should take it slow with him? Giving him more than one year to find success isn't taking it slow, it's reasonable.

You guys act as if being drafted casts some magic spell on the player. Grabovski was a rookie at age 24, he struggled at age 25, and excelled at age 26. No it's not the norm for a player that age, but to suggest that a because a player struggled in their first year of play that they should be written off is ludicrous. It's one thing if the guy never showed potential, but he did and he should get at least another year before his NHL career is written off.

George Prax's picture

It's not as clear cut as you put it. An 18-year-old rookie is not a 22-year-old-rookie is not a 25-year-old rookie is not a 30-year-old rookie. The longer it takes for you to break into the league, the shorter you have to play in it, and the shorter you leash is with teams. Simple math tells us that a guy who signs with a team at 25 automatically has 7 years of catching up to do with a guy drafted at 18 in an NHL system. And there's usually a reason for that discrepancy. It's not about some "magic spell" cast on players, because, obviously, there are plenty of players who are drafted who don't work out or, who, as you said, take just as long to develop and pan out. But simply put if you're undrafted, if you haven't spent much time in a team's development system and if you come into a team at 25, you'd better produce because you won't get as much leway as the guy who's had more invested in him, even if he gets to the NHL at the same age.

And again, I'm not saying that Bozak should be written off, but it's pretty simple to see why his leash might be shorter than a drafted player.