How undrafted Tyler Bozak has evolved on the Maple Leafs roster

Hockey Central analyst Doug MacLean joins Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup to discuss the defensive struggles of the Bozak, Marner, van Riemsdyk line, and why he feels JVR and Bozak will be trade bait for a defenceman.

Tyler Bozak’s relationship to his adopted home has evolved over time. When he came to Toronto in 2009, he was a 23-year-old who was free — within reason — to spend downtime as frivolously as he pleased. Eight years on, the story is much different, but no less enjoyable.

“The city is great when you are young and having fun and it’s great when you have family,” says Bozak, now a married 31-year-old with a son. “There’s lots to get out and do.”

Just as there’s been a shift in the way Bozak uses his time away from the rink, his position on the team has changed, too. Gone are the days when he centred the first line on a squad that frequently put fans’ faith to the test. Instead, he anchors a still-dangerous third trio for a Toronto team that can score with anybody and figures to have something to say about who emerges from the Eastern Conference come playoff time.

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There’s some notion that Bozak — set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 — could be dangled in a trade to help the blue line. Given the universally acknowledged need for depth down the middle, though, you can’t help but wonder if the Leafs would do well to retain a crafty player whose tenure with the Buds exceeds that of anybody else presently wearing blue and white.

“I don’t think many guys stay in the same place as long as I have, especially with the turnover we have had here,” Bozak says. “But it’s been cool, I’ve got to meet a lot of new teammates and make a lot of new friends. Hopefully [there are] more years to come here. We’ll see.”

Appreciating what Bozak can do is much easier now that he’s properly slotted on a winning team as opposed to miscast on a scuffling outfit. Put a 20-homerun guy in the cleanup spot and you’re going to have unrest; hit that same player second in the batting order and all of a sudden everybody can gush about what he is instead of carping about what he isn’t.

“Elite hockey sense,” says Leafs coach Mike Babcock when asked what stands out about his time around Bozak.

One direct beneficiary of Bozak’s feel for the game is longtime linemate James van Riemsdyk.

The left winger says the two found chemistry because they play in a similar, efficient fashion.

He also believes Bozak’s propensity to be in the right place at the right time is about far more than the casual observer might realize: It’s not as if the guy just stands wherever he stops after bumping into an opponent.

“It’s like, no, that’s a unique skill,” says van Riemsdyk of Bozak’s often perfect placement.

Start adding up everything Bozak can do — he registered a career-high 55 points last year and has won fewer than 50 per cent of his draws just once in eight-plus seasons — and you’ll quickly realize he’s one of the best undrafted NHLers of the past decade. Since Bozak’s pro career began in the 2009-10 campaign, the only undrafted players to register more points than his 328 are Martin St. Louis (448) and Chris Kunitz (373). His 0.63 points-per-game during the same stretch ranks eighth among undrafted guys in a group headlined by St. Louis (1.01), Artemi Panarin (0.94) and Andy McDonald (0.75).

As a baby-faced greybeard on a roster dotted with young studs, Bozak has never had a second thought about the fact he took the back roads to his final destination.

“I wasn’t upset when I didn’t get drafted,” says the University of Denver alum. “It wasn’t one of those things where I thought I should have [been drafted] or it really brought me down. I was going to college and I had a great time there.

“I don’t regret one thing I did on my way up. I think it was the best path for me. Some of my best friends are guys I went to college with. I always get in the debate with guys [about] major junior over college; I pick college every time, it was a great experience for me.”

The same is true of a relatively new experience in Bozak’s life: Seeing less of the No. 1 defence tandems he was always faced with back when he skated beside the Leafs’ main offensive threat, Phil Kessel. With Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri in the mix, Bozak is no longer expected to butt up against the league’s premier defenders on a nightly basis.

“It’s nice,” he says with a laugh. “Obviously when you get a guy like Matthews, he’s going to take care of all the tough matchups, pretty much. Whenever we’re on the road, they’re going to put their best D against a guy like that. When I was playing with Phil, it was the same thing for us. Everybody in this league is a great player, but some of those top-end, shutdown D are pretty tough, so it’s nice to get away from those guys every now and again.”

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While the circumstances around Bozak have brightened, he’s also taken ownership of his development, ensuring his game improves right alongside his situation.

“I think Bozie’s gotten way better the past year-and-a-half defensively, competing way harder away from the puck,” says Babcock.

Maybe that’s because, even when he’s home these days, Bozak is battling in the corners. His son, Kanon, will soon turn two. The toddler is already playing hockey around the house and, as dad puts it, “he’s really humming around now.”

A handle that sounds precisely like something a hockey-playing father would come up with was actually suggested by Bozak’s wife after she came across it on Pinterest. In an instant, they both felt they’d picked the top corner.

“We wanted to do something unique, something we didn’t see a lot,” Bozak says. “Right when we saw it, we thought it was the one.”

Finally, recognizing the full value of Kanon’s dad should be just as easy for Leafs supporters.

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