TORONTO – Standing in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room Sunday brunch-time, fielding questions from reporters, Tyler Bozak didn’t look shaken particularly. Not humbled. Not enraged. In his time with the Leafs he has always stepped up and answered the questions.
About twelve hours after another humiliating loss in Boston, the questions were, roughly: What the hell happened? What the hell can you do to get back into this opening-round series starting with Game 3 Monday night?
At age 32, in his ninth NHL season, Bozak is practiced in offering answers that illuminate not much more than a flickering birthday candle.
To the theme of the first query, he said: “The first two games didn’t go as planned. You want to go in there and get a split. A few bounces early didn’t go our way and got behind the eight ball and it’s tough to come back against a team that plays that well defensively like Boston.”
And for the second: “[We’ll] get fresh again and ready to go. Obviously you have to win your home games. We have to play our game. We got away from a couple of things that we do. It was good to get a power-play goal against them [in Game 2]. Hopefully we can stay out of the box and win the special-teams game.”
All of what Bozak said was true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.
When Bozak was talking about the upcoming games in Toronto, you had to wonder if, in the back of his mind at the very least, he was thinking about them as potentially the last two games he’ll play for the Leafs, the team that he signed with as a college free agent in 2009 and, but for a brief stint with the Marlies, the only professional team he has ever played for.
So far it has been 594 regular-season games and 13 more in the playoffs. He’s an unrestricted free agent in the off-season and, if you try to project the future, who gets paid how much for how long, it just doesn’t feel like there’s a place for him at all going forward. Not short term, not at a hometown discount.
This season and, particularly, this post-season it was incumbent on Bozak to change perceptions and force management to re-evaluate him. He has, after all, scored as many as 20 goals in one season and just once made it to 50 points. When the team was passing the 100-point mark, attention was diverted from Bozak but he can’t be happy with 11 goals and 32 assists nor can those who sign his paycheque. Through two games in this series, all he has managed to do is validate those who are most sharply critical of him.
Curiously enough, adversity for the Leafs provided an opportunity for Bozak. When centre Nazem Kadri was suspended after the opener and suspended for three games, Bozak was presented a chance to step up and fill a void. It didn’t play out that way in Game 2 – really it only served to remind you just how vital Kadri is to this team.
When you look at it, Bozak’s not exactly set up for success going forward. If any team in the Eastern Conference exposes the shortcomings in his game it’s Boston – the Bruins live under the skin of opponents and physically take the game to them. Pushback is not Bozak’s game. He has skill. He can make plays. He can win face-offs, no doubt. Useful as far as it goes in the regular season, not particularly helpful against Boston. He looks like a replacement-level player and that’s the thing about replacement-level players – they wind up getting replaced.
Bozak and James van Riemsdyk have been mentioned in the same breath for most of their professional lives, for better or worse.
It’s not just that they’ve skated together on the same line so often. In the remaking and remodelling of the Leafs they seemed like anomalies. They were inherited from the old regime, the Brian Burke days, and, as such they were survivors of the last disastrous time the Leafs faced Boston in the post-season. Through their time they have been the Leafs’ most often rumoured to be sent away in trade, rumours that were probably more wishful than substantiated. Additionally, their contracts wind down in tandem and face futures that are similar in their uncertainty if nothing else.
In Game 2 against Boston, van Riemsdyk actually tried to level a body-check, against Zdeno Chara of all people. Talk about picking your spots. The timing wasn’t great either – the game was in its death throes, the Leafs hopelessly out of it. It seemed more petulant than anything else. (It might have spurred you to actually look at the hits level by JVR this year: 40 in the regular season. Fact is, Bozak and JVR combined for fewer hits than Kadri did by himself.)
Bozak suggested that there wasn’t much of a point rehashing or breaking down Game 2, not with just a sleet-filled day between games.
“You just flush it away,” he said.
There’s no looking back on what happened this weekend for the Leafs players, just as there’ll be no looking back for management when this season winds down. Standing across from Bozak in the dressing room Sunday, you felt like you were at a dress rehearsal for his exit interview, which might come as soon as the end of business Friday.