All that grumbling and griping has made its way to Tyler Bozak. “Really,” the cynics have sniped, “this is the best the Toronto Maple Leafs’ can do for a No. 1 centre? A guy who was never drafted? Are you kidding me?”
“Oh for sure, I’ve heard that,” Bozak acknowledged Tuesday. “I’m sure a lot of people in Toronto want a high-profile, high-end first-line centre.”
What they have instead is a low-profile centre playing high-end hockey; someone who has developed a special bond with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, both of whom are averaging a point a game.
With the Regina-born Bozak using his speed and working on his defensive play, Lupul and Kessel are en route to career scoring years. So, too, is Bozak, having totalled 12 goals and 22 assists in 47 games.
It’s another progression for the self-described late bloomer.
“I think I’ve done pretty well,” said Bozak, 25. “I had just four points in 15 games to start the season and since then I’ve been better. Obviously, I’m playing with two great wingers. What I try to do is be the guy driving the net three on two so I can create some space for them to make plays and shoot.
“I think we’re doing all right.”
Bozak took notice of his late blooming during his third year in the B.C. junior league, when he scored 128 points in 59 games. (“That was when I thought maybe I do have a chance (to do something more in hockey),” he recalled.)
He chose to enroll at the University of Denver, which had won a pair of NCAA championships under head coach George Gwozdecky. While in Denver, Bozak became friends with defenceman Chris Butler. The two will clash Tuesday night when the Leafs play the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
“What impressed me the most was how well he played defensively,” Butler said of Bozak. “He was an older freshman and he took a lot of pride on face-offs and penalty killing. In Toronto, he’s done a fantastic job. There was lot of pressure on him his second year and he bounced back and played strong. I’m not surprised. He’s got a great mind for the game.”
Bozak had 25 NHL teams interested in him after his second season in Denver and chose the Leafs because he wanted to play in Canada and be part of the Leafs’ Hockey Night in Canada tradition. He scored 15 goals in 2010-2011, his first full NHL season, but he insisted there were gaps in his overall play.
“They want me to play a good two-way game,” he explained. “Ron (Wilson, the Leafs’ head coach) has been awesome. He’s given me a great opportunity and stuck with me when times were a little tough. I didn’t know where I’d be (this season).”
Bozak has five goals in his last seven games and was eager to keep that going in Calgary, where 18 family members and friends have come to see him play. They view him as the top centreman on the Leafs’ most productive line, and that’s good enough for Bozak.
Ironically, the Flames are dealing with some questions at the centre position, too.
With Mikael Backlund sidelined for four to six weeks with a left shoulder injury, Mike Cammalleri will skate at centre with wingers Blake Comeau and Tom Kostopoulos. Cammalleri has said he hasn’t played centre since his days at the University of Michigan.
“I’m excited to see it,” Jarome Iginla said of Cammalleri’s move to second-line centre. “I think he’ll do well.”
The Flames will go with Miikka Kiprusoff in goal; Jonas Gustavsson will start for Toronto.