The moment Tyler Bozak tipped in the Game 3 overtime winner in the Leafs’ opening-round series versus the top-seeded Washington Capitals, giving the lovable underdogs a 2-1 series jump, belief ricocheted off the blade of an undrafted centreman and rippled through the team and the city.
Bozak is 31 years old. He is coming off the greatest statistical season of his NHL career: 18 goals and 37 assists for 55 points, plus another four points in Toronto’s six-game post-season series loss to the Capitals.
On July 1, he is set to become one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents at his position under the age of 33, a small group led by John Tavares and featuring Ottawa’s Kyle Turris, St. Louis’s Paul Stastny, and Calgary’s Mikael Backlund.
Bozak has previously stated his desire to remain with the only pro franchise he’s ever known, but with juicy raises due for young star forwards Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner over the next two summers, the idea of Bozak sticking with the club long-term feels like a cap puzzle difficult to solve.
The Regina native is costing the club a cap hit of $4.2 million in the final season of his five-year contract. Bozak theoretically could’ve signed a new deal back on July 1. He revealed Monday at the Leafs & Legends Charity Golf Classic that he has not begun negotiating a contract extension with the team.
“I haven’t been talking about any of that. That’s a long way away,” said Bozak at Rattlesnake Point Golf Club. “I’m focused on the season at hand and just want to play well.”
While the pivot’s future remains up in the air, his opening night linemates are a safe bet to be a lock. Centering wingers James van Riemsdyk, who’s entering a critical contract year of his own, and Marner, Bozak helped each member of his line produce at a career high.
“Chemistry’s not an easy thing to find. Whenever you find it, it’s a thing that’s gonna stay together,” said Bozak, who wore an A on his sweater last season.
“It’s huge whenever you play with someone for a long time and you learn where each other are going to be on the ice, and throwing Mitch in there [with me and van Riemsdyk] doesn’t hurt at all. He’s an unbelievable player. We played great as a line, and hopefully we’ll be together again.”
Big picture, the Leafs are positioning themselves to offer Matthews No. 1 franchise centre money, perhaps as early as next summer. Twenty-six-year-old Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million cap hit through 2021-22) is playing and getting paid like a solid No. 2 centre.
Eventually shifting Nylander to the middle remains a possibility. Serviceable veterans Ben Smith and Eric Fehr remain on the roster, but neither creates at Bozak’s level.
Look down the depth chart at centre younger, cheaper prospects Frederik Gauthier and Adam Brooks, the latter coming off a 130-point junior campaign for the Regina Pats.
Neither Matthews nor Kadri has won the majority of his face-offs, a facet of the game important to Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
Bozak flourishes at the dot. Not only was he the only Leafs regular (minimum 40 games played) to hold a winning face-off percentage last season, his 56.7 per cent success rate ranks him among the league’s top 10 centres in the category.
So it was of little surprise to hear Bozak’s name floated in (unsubstantiated) trade speculation this summer, most notably to the New York Rangers, who traded away a solid experienced centre in Derek Stepan.
The player, for now, appears unfazed by the uncertainty of his future and is eager to build off Toronto’s 2017 playoff appearance.
“Individually, I was really happy with the way I played. I want to take it another step further and lead on and off the ice and produce as well,” Bozak said.
“As athletes, we always expect to improve as individuals and as a team. We expect to be better than we were last year.”