It was midnight on Thursday morning, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were piled in their plane heading home after a game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
And Tyler Bozak would not stop laughing.
“He was just howling like a hyena the whole flight home,” Leafs rookie Morgan Rielly said of his teammate, who had scored the overtime winner two hours earlier – and his second of the night – against the Rangers. “He was like the happiest guy in Toronto when he got back.”
Surveying the scene, which included Bozak taking part in a rowdy poker game on the plane, the 19-year-old posted a quick message to his Twitter account.
“One thing I know for sure after tonight is that @Bozie42 loves the game,” Rielly wrote. “What a player.”
It’s been a remarkable season all around for Tyler Bozak, the Leafs top line centre who is in the midst of a career year despite playing just 40 of 64 games due to injury.
His line with friend and roommate Phil Kessel on the right side and big, creative winger James van Riemsdyk on the left has quickly emerged as the NHL’s most dangerous over the last two-and-a-half months of the season, providing Toronto with essentially half of its offence during its recent rise up the standings.
Maligned in the past for settling in around the 50-point mark despite playing with one of the NHL’s most dynamic scorers, Bozak is putting up nearly a point a game in a half season so far and earning kudos from his teammates for doing so.
A little more than a week from his 28th birthday, he needs only four goals and 10 points over the final 18 games to match career highs that were set in far more games.
With the Leafs first line currently producing two or three goals every night, few doubt that he’ll get there.
For Leafs management, coaches and players, that’s all been validation that Bozak is a bonafide No. 1 centre, ending a debate that has raged in the city pretty much from his first game after signing as an undrafted college free agent in 2009.
In a 278-game career that has had its share of peaks and valleys, this is certainly the peak.
So far anyway.
“When he’s healthy and playing, our team is totally different,” Rielly explained. “I personally think he’s one of the top players in the league. He’s really had a chance to prove that this year. I think all the chirps he gets about not being this or that, I think it’s all stupid.”
“It’s been four or five years that people have been saying that stuff,” Bozak said. “I’ve blocked it out by now. I’m surprised people still talk about it – it must get annoying to them.”
Where the disagreement comes on Bozak isn’t all that complicated.
On one hand, he plays an incredible amount of hockey each night for the Leafs, averaging more ice time – 21 minutes, 13 seconds – per game than all but six forwards in the league (if you account for the two games he was injured in).
Coach Randy Carlyle also now relies on him in the most difficult minutes of any player on the team, matchups that are made even tougher given the number of defensive zone draws he’s tasked with.
On the other, over the last three seasons, the Leafs have been outshot heavily (1,373-1,168) with Bozak on the ice at even strength, which has contributed to a line with one of the NHL’s top scorers on it outscoring the opposition by just eight goals over those 159 games.
And all of that eight-goal difference has come in the Leafs last 10 games.
While Bozak’s point production has been surprisingly consistent this season – he is 15th in the NHL in points per game among centres – it’s also been driven skyward by the fact the Leafs have the highest shooting percentage when he’s on the ice of any player in the league (13 per cent).
As was the case with teammate Nazem Kadri when he led the league in that stat last season, Bozak can be expected to see his point totals dip closer to the 60-point pace than the nearly 80-point pace he’s currently on over a larger stretch of games.
“We’ve gotten a lot of bounces this year since I’ve been back,” Bozak admitted when asked if their line was the best in the game at the moment. “The most important games are coming up, so this is where we’ve got to play our best.”
The biggest argument in Bozak’s favour this season, however, is that the trend in past years where Kessel was more productive without him on his line than with him has been dramatically reversed, something clearly evident when you look at his two stints out of the lineup.
In the 24 games Bozak missed this season, Kessel had nine goals and 10 assists, for a 65-point pace over a full season.
In the 40 they played together, he had 24 goals and 27 assists, which is good for a 105-point pace.
As long as they are clicking to that extent, Carlyle doesn’t plan on changing anything.
“We believe in him quite a bit, and you can tell by the commitment that the organization’s made to him,” Carlyle said, referencing a five-year, $21-million deal Bozak signed right after the opening of free agency last July. “We believe he’s a pretty good hockey player.”
“He really makes that line go,” Rielly said. “He’s a two-way guy. He’s unbelievable on draws. He PPs and PKs – I mean I don’t know what more you could ask from the guy.”
Tyler Bozak in a nutshell
What has happened when Bozak has been on the ice for the Leafs the last three years at even strength?