Despite doubters, Bozak is a front-line player

Tyler Bozak is the only guy many still refuse to recognize as a true front-line player. After his performance on Wednesday, It's time to give him his due (Elise Amendola/AP)

How the Toronto Maple Leafs win games has been a hot-button issue all season. But any conversation about who is helping them earn victories, increasingly, can’t get too far before Tyler Bozak’s name comes up.

The Leafs, playing in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, earned a critical two points in their pursuit of a playoff spot by downing Martin St-Louis and the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime. The warts that serve as a warning about this team’s limitations showed themselves again, as the Rangers erased a 2-0 third-period deficit by scoring shorthanded goals just 1:19 apart.

It was the second time in a week the Leafs—who snapped a three-game winless streak—had surrendered two shorties on the same penalty. It was the league-leading 20th time Toronto has allowed a tying goal in the final frame. And it was all for naught from the Rangers’ perspective when Bozak, who opened the scoring on a second-period penalty shot, bookended his night by one-timing a behind-the-net pass from Phil Kessel past Henrik Lundqvist.

Bozak, the only guy many still refuse to recognize as a true front-line player on a first unit that’s as threatening as any in the NHL, now has 37 points in 40 games this year. And since returning from a strained oblique muscle on Dec. 29, the man who signed a five-year, $21-million deal to stay in Toronto last summer has 26 points in 23 games.

Money well spent, you’d have to say.

In a sense, Bozak’s plight is similar to that of his team. At some point, the way Toronto earns victories will become moot. People may happily poke holes in the Leafs’ frenetic showings, but as long as they continue to bank points, the arguments will gain less and less traction. Bozak’s standing as a No. 1 pivot can be contested on every block along Bay Street, but the bottom line is he’s become an elite point-producer who seems to relish the responsibility that comes with his position.

He sure looks like a guy who believes in himself. Not every player in the league can swoop in on Lundqvist, as Bozak did on his penalty shot, and snap the puck past one of the world’s best goalies without even a whiff of worry.

What really makes Bozak so valuable to the Leafs is the fact that, among the team’s true offensive difference-makers, he’s the only one who is also very stout defensively. That means coach Randy Carlyle can rest a little easier leaning so hard on two wingers in Kessel and James van Riemsdyk who won’t soon be making a push for the Selke Trophy.

While comparisons to last year’s scoring champion might be a stretch, St. Louis’s arrival in New York offered a natural opportunity to examine some career symmetry with Bozak. Both were passed over in the NHL draft, signed as free agents and thrived with smaller frames in the face of skeptics. St. Louis’s big breakout year came when he scored 33 goals and 70 points as a 27-year-old in 2002-03. Bozak, at age 27, is producing at a rate that projects roughly to a 75-point season over 82 games.

Even if things like the Hart Trophy St. Louis has on his mantle remain well beyond Bozak’s grasp, there’s no denying the critical role he plays on this Leafs team.

Toronto’s formula is pretty well established at this point; Jonathan Bernier makes the saves—35 of them against the Rangers—and the first line nets the timely goals. With 18 games left in the season, that template likely isn’t changing. What should, though, is how much recognition Bozak gets for his role in making it work.

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