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Dixon: Maple Leafs' Bozak will be better in diminished role

Tyler Bozak had 15 goals and 32 points in 82 games with Toronto this past season. (Getty Images)

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Tyler Bozak had 15 goals and 32 points in 82 games with Toronto this past season. (Getty Images)

Usually when a pair of new centers roll into town, talk quickly turns to how they might help out a team’s existing wingers.

In the case of Toronto Maple Leafs acquiring pivots Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi, the biggest benefactor may be another middleman, Tyler Bozak.

On Tuesday, Bozak signed a two-year deal worth $1.5 million annually. Though his actual salary was only $875,000 the first two seasons of his NHL career, his cap hit was $3.7 million, thanks to the performances bonuses in his contract that had to be accounted for.

So his cap hit drops a couple million and his spot in the lineup slides from top-six forward to third- or fourth-liner, but life is about to improve for Bozak in the context of his value to the team.

When the Leafs outbid other interested clubs for Bozak’s services when he was a 23-year-old NCAA free agent coming out of the University of Denver, the organization had a gaping hole at center that thrust Bozak much higher on the depth chart than he should have been.

If Bozak had been an actor, not a hockey player, he would have graduated from Juilliard, done one Trident commercial, then been cast as the leading man in a Hollywood blockbuster. And if that flick had been appropriately named, it would have been called, Set Up To Fail.

Adding Connolly and Lombardi to a mix at center that also includes Mikhail Grabovski means that while the Leafs still don’t have a bona fide No. 1 guy, they’ve got three capable No. 2’s. If one of those guys slides to wing, with Lombardi seemingly the most likely candidate, that would allow Bozak to slide into a No. 3 hole he’s very well suited for, especially now that he’s got a couple years of experience under his belt.

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Let’s get this out of the way; Bozak’s team-worst minus-29 rating last season doesn’t exactly invoke images of Bob Gainey. But Toronto was a pretty gruesome outfit for half the year and playing most of the season with Phil Kessel - he of a minus-20 rating - may have helped Bozak get a couple more goals, but it was never going to improve his defensive stats.

Fact is, Bozak led the Leafs with a 54.6 winning percentage in the faceoff dot and became a very reliable penalty-killer by season’s end. Of the forwards who took a regular turn in Toronto’s lineup, only Tim Brent and Colby Armstrong averaged more shorthanded ice per game than Bozak’s 1:48.

In a perfect world, your third-line center would be a touch bigger and more physical than Bozak, though, in keeping with the well-established tradition of players from Saskatchewan, he’s certainly not afraid to get in the mix. But if Bozak is slightly smaller than would be ideal, he also has more speed and skill than you’d expect to find in the three-hole.

Now that he’s no longer miscast, take two of his NHL career will make for much better viewing than the first one.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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