Friday, March 7, 2014

Were We Wrong About Tyler Bozak?

One of the most debated Leafs signings in recent years, Tyler Bozak is nearly on a point-per-game pace in year one of a five-year deal and could surpass his career high in points in considerably fewer games.

But has he really improved?

Bozak has been limited to 40 games this season due to injuries, but has produced when he's dressed. He has 37 points in 40 games and when he reunited with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk after recovering from a strained oblique muscle the trio carried the team for a torrid 14-game stretch.

The van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Kessel line has combined for 35 goals, which makes them the third most productive line in the league, behind only Marian Hossa-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Sharp and Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Jarome Iginla. What's more impressive is that the Leafs' trio has done so in far fewer games than their contemporaries, as Bozak has missed two long stretches of action.

Bozak has taken considerable criticism over the years (from these parts included), mainly because his value is derived primarily from Kessel, and lately, van Riemsdyk as well. He's been a good face-off man in years past, but the relative difference between his ability to win draws and those of his teammates isn't so large as to overcome the other deficiencies in his game.

In previous years Bozak's production was largely due to his superior linemates and the huge minutes Randy Carlyle gave him. While slotting between two Olympians has certainly continued to help, for the first time Bozak is making good use of his minutes. Among players who have played at least 30 games, Bozak ranks 7th among centres in even-strength points per 60 minutes, sandwiched between Joe Thornton and Matt Duchene. In years past Bozak was being outscored on a per-minute basis by guys like Chad Larose and Ryan Jones. Now he's among the elite centres in the game.

Bozak is on pace for his best season ever. He's scored 37 points in 40 games, which works out to nearly 76 over a full 82-game season. Only 17 players surpassed 75 points in 2011-12.

However, there are reasons to believe this isn't the new Bozak. He's improved, but not to the point that he's become a 70-point centre. Bozak's own shooting percentage is standing at 21.54%, more than five percentage points above his career average. So although Bozak is on pace for 20 goals over 58 games this season (a career high), what's more likely based on how many shots he's firing and how frequently goals have gone in for him over his career, is that 20 goals over 82 games is a more realistic output.

You could argue that Bozak isn't the shooter on his line, and that he knows to give the puck to Kessel and van Riemsdyk, so his play-making abilities are more indicative of his improved game. It's true Bozak has 23 assists in 40 games, only six shy of his career high tallied in 73 games. However, since Bozak returned from injury almost everything is going in for the big line. At 5-on-5, the Leafs are scoring on roughly 13% of their shots with Bozak on the ice. That's the second highest percentage for in the league.

Unfortunately, a team's shooting percentage when a player is on the ice doesn't tend to be representative of skill over small samples. If a lot of bounces are going a team's way they are going to score more frequently. But the hockey gods don't shine on you forever.  That number tends to fall closer to the league average over a large enough sample. In 2011-12, the Oilers scored on 12.7% of their shots with Jordan Eberle on the ice, which helped Eberle score a career-high 76 points. The next season that number dropped precipitously to 8.5% and Eberle's point total declined with it.

Over a long enough time it's clear some players do persistently influence their team's shooting percentage. Unsurprisingly, over the last six years the Penguins score on 11.67% of their even-strength shots with Sidney Crosby on the ice. Well above the league average. The Leafs with Bozak, by comparison, are scoring on 8.82% of their shots over the same period, which is also above the league average mark of 7.89%, but still well below the current clip at which the Leafs are shooting.

So banking on Bozak being a 70-point centre ignores the fact that right now the bounces are going his way, which is unlikely to persist in the future to such an extent. What's more likely is that Bozak is a 50-point centre, a total, I must add, he has yet to hit in his career.

Still, even if Bozak is more like a 50-point centre instead of a 70-point centre that's still valuable, especially with a manageable cap hi. It's not as if Kessel and van Riemsdyk are suffering with him as their centre. He's at least producing (unlike some other high paid free agents that play on the same team). In fact, looking at Bozak's most comparable cap hits on CapGeek (and ignoring RFA deals), he looks pretty good. That should count as heaping praise around these parts.

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