If things had turned out just a little bit differently in the spring of 2009, Tyler Bozak could have been in an Ottawa Senators jersey on Wednesday night, setting up former University of Denver teammate Patrick Wiercioch for shots from the point as he did so many times in college.
Ottawa ended up the runner-up for Bozak when 28 NHL teams came calling for his services as a free agent, despite Wiercioch, a skilled defenceman drafted by the Sens, making a pitch for his friend to join him.
A year and a half later and just 37 games into his NHL career, Bozak is pencilled in as Toronto's top line centre and has a new pal in two-time 30-goal man Phil Kessel.
Their teammates are already taking note of their bond.
"Him and Bozie are inseparable," defenceman Mike Komisarek said. "Those guys are always around each other, always hang out. Started calling them Bert and Ernie the other day."
"It's weird, but right when I came up here, we got to know each other pretty well off the bat," Bozak said. "We've just got a lot of the same interests."
Kessel and Bozak also share the same agent in Newport Sports' Wade Arnott, who said the two were familiar with each other prior to last season. It wasn't until they were paired together in January, however, that their friendship took off.
It's a relationship that has helped Bozak acclimate to the NHL and earn a first-line role as Kessel's go-to setup man despite his relative inexperience.
"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."
They were together again Wednesday night, on the ice with linemate Nikolai Kulemin for Toronto's first two goals in a 4-1 preseason win over the Senators. Bozak went pointless in the game, but played on both special teams units and moved the puck well.
General manager Brian Burke said Wednesday that Bozak has "great upside" and that the Leafs will likely go into the season with Kessel, Bozak and Kulemin as a set first line. The trio combined for 79 points in 36 games together after Bozak was recalled from the minors last season, and Bozak assisted on 10 of Kessel's 16 goals in that span.
Coach Ron Wilson said Bozak could end up with 50 or 60 points, numbers that aren't unreasonable given Toronto's lack of other options up front. He will get plenty of ice time and could be in line for a hefty raise when his contract expires next summer if he can produce.
"Phil wants the puck all the time and I think he's got Bozie in his back pocket with that right now," Wilson said. "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."
Bozak said he and Kessel kept in close contact this summer and agreed to come to Toronto a month early to train together. Both are former National Collegiate Athletic Association stars who left school early to join the NHL, but Kessel did so as an 18-year-old, fifth-overall pick.
Almost two years his senior, Bozak took a longer route - going undrafted because he was 5 foot 9 at 18 - and was almost 24 before landing in the NHL full time. Bozak said Wednesday he remembers watching Kessel's career closely, when he was still with the Victoria Grizzlies in Junior A and miles away from NHL stardom.
It's still a bit surreal now serving as his linemate and friend.
"When I was playing college, he was still getting talked about by other guys for how good he was in Minnesota," Bozak said. "And then watching him play in the NHL and seeing how many goals a young kid like that can score, it's pretty amazing now being able to play with him and be good buddies with him."
Arnott said he wasn't surprised Bozak has meshed quickly with his new team.
"He's a character," Arnott said. "He's a practical joker at times, he likes to keep guys on their toes. But very genuine, very team oriented. Everywhere he's gone, teammates love this guy. Obviously on the ice but even as much off the ice. I don't hear a thing negative about him ever.
"He comes across as a kind of an aw-shucks, team guy, but he's a pretty intelligent person. And player. I think you see that on the ice."Report Typo/Error