A year ago, Tyler Bozak was on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line out of necessity.
Now, he’s replaced the player general manager Brian Burke signed to replace him in that coveted spot.
And the good news is that not only does Tim Connolly not mind that he’s not playing with NHL scoring leader Phil Kessel, but he is even helping Bozak live up to the role.
Connolly, 30, is the Maple Leafs oldest forward and is now serving as a mentor, in practice, during games and any other time a youngster such as Bozak needs advice.
“He’s helped me a lot, actually,” Bozak said. “He’s been a centreman in this league for a long time [2011-12 is Connolly’s 11th NHL season] Just seeing the way he plays defensively and offensively, he’s such a good two-way centre, that just watching him has helped me learn a lot.
“I’ve got a pretty good relationship with him and we spend a lot of time together outside the rink and at the rink. He’s just helped me a long way.”
Few had very high expectations for Bozak this season, after a trying sophomore year.
Paired with Kessel in a top-six role almost all of 2010-11, he struggled to play up to that assignment, with just 32 points and a minus-29 rating – the latter of which was fourth worst in the NHL.
That led to Burke famously defending Bozak in his season-ending press conference, saying he was to blame for having him slotted too high in the lineup. The GM also vowed to find another No. 1 centre.
“If a guy is out of position, if he is in the wrong box, that’s not his fault,” Burke said. “If we have Tyler Bozak in the one hole and he can’t play in the one-hole, that is my fault, not Tyler’s.”
Bozak was well aware he needed to be better. So three days after watching Connolly sign for big money to play with Kessel, he quietly signed his own two-year deal for $3-million (U.S.) and set out to become stronger in preparation for a season as a more defensively responsible third-line centre.
Injuries to Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski have since bumped him far higher in the lineup, however, and through 19 games, Bozak’s improvement has been noticeable.
Playing several recent games with Kessel and Joffrey Lupul – two of the hottest hands in the league – Bozak has six points in his last six games heading into Tuesday’s meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning. More importantly, he says, he’s a plus player one quarter of the way into the season.
“I’m been trying to keep that end clean,” he said. “Not cheating towards offence when things aren’t going well. I figure when you cheat on defence, you don’t get the opportunity on offence.”
While Connolly wasn’t originally envisioned as someone to mentor Bozak to fill this particular role, Burke said he’s impressed with how they’ve bonded, calling Connolly a “quality person.”
“I’m not surprised to hear this,” Burke added.
As for what he’s learned so far, Bozak points to some of the simplest things Connolly has said that have improved his game.
“There’s lots that I would never even think about that he’ll bring up,” he said. “It’s just tiny little things throughout the game that maybe might gain you a second of open ice that I would have never thought could help.
“He sees stuff like that. He reads the game so well.”