They have become inseparable, both off the ice and on, branded the Toronto Maple Leafs’ version of Bert and Ernie by former teammate Mike Komisarek.
That Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak became roommates this season, in addition to being linemates, has done little to quiet the jabs from others in the dressing room.
“I don’t know whether they’re drawing up plays or whatever at home,” said Leafs assistant captain Joffrey Lupul, who played with the pair last season but has missed most of this one due to injury. “There’s certainly some chemistry. They’re together 24/7 so there’s no excuse for them not to [have that].”
“He had an extra spot in his house and it was a shortened season so I hadn’t found a place yet,” Bozak explained, noting they rarely talk about hockey away from the rink. “I took him up on the offer.”
The past 2 1/2 seasons, Kessel and Bozak have rarely been split up by their coaches either, with Randy Carlyle making them one of his few go-to pairings all season in a career year for both.
Of Bozak’s 640 minutes played at even strength, Kessel has been alongside him more than 90 per cent of the time, with both players in the top 30 among NHL forwards in total minutes played.
Kessel’s recent hot streak – eight points in his last four games and 26 in his last 19 – has put them both on pace for personal bests, with Bozak’s 26 points in 41 games projecting to double that in an 82-game season and Kessel narrowly ahead of last year’s point-a-game pace.
They have also been earning more and more praise from coaches and management, too, with Carlyle noting on Sunday that they are getting better defensively and away from playing a “rush” game that opens them up to chances against.
“They’re two smart hockey players,” Carlyle said. “They’ve got very high [hockey] IQ. They know where one another are, they play off of one another and they look for one another. They think the game in a lot of the same manner.”
“I think when you have a good bond off the ice, it transfers on to the ice,” Bozak said. “We’ve played with each other three years now so you get the feeling of where you’re going to be.”
For all the good, however, the pairing has its shortcomings, which will make it interesting to see whether the Leafs decide to lock in Kessel and Bozak as two of the faces of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Bozak will be the first order of business for Leafs GM Dave Nonis, as he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 5. With the dearth of centres available, he could attract a lot of attention.
A good story as an undrafted late bloomer who has found a regular role on a top line, contributes on both special teams and has improved over time, Bozak nonetheless will always be hounded by charges he is better suited to second or third-line minutes.
The Leafs’ top line continues to be heavily outshot and outchanced, giving up 33 shots per 60 minutes at even strength – the highest total of any two forwards that play together in the league – despite not often facing top scoring lines. There’s also concern over whether Bozak can excel when not on the ice with Kessel, who becomes a free agent in the summer of 2014 and will be costly to re-sign.
According to figures generated by stats.hockeyanalysis.com, the Leafs have been outscored 2-to-1 and outshot more heavily when Bozak has played without Kessel at 5-on-5 the past few years.
The site also reveals that all but eight of Bozak’s 84 points in those situations have come while playing with Kessel, despite the fact that nearly 18 per cent of his ice time has been with a variety of other wingers.
So with Kessel due a massive raise into the $7-million to $8-million (all currency U.S.) a season range and Bozak thought to be seeking something similar to the four-year, $19-million deal the Carolina Hurricanes gave Tuomo Ruutu last year, the Leafs are faced with committing a large portion of their forward dollars to keeping them together long term.
Every indication from management is they intend to try to keep the pair, a sign the Leafs like the positives they bring and believe they can eliminate the negatives.
“I think we’re getting better,” Bozak said after they had another strong outing in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. “Getting a cycle going and creating a lot more scoring chances.”
“They didn’t trade chances and that’s what I don’t want them to do,” Carlyle said. “We’ve been harping on that from Day 1 and that’s not going to change. I think they are [improving]. I think they understand it.”