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NHL Free Agency 2018: Would Tyler Bozak make sense for the Golden Knights?

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The veteran pivot’s history with speedy wingers makes him an intriguing free agent option.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Knights roster is anything but full of holes. After all, this is the team that may not have hoisted the Stanley Cup in June, but were the only ones capable after dispensing the rest of the Western Conference to the shadow realm.

Having said that, any roster can improve, and that of Vegas’ is no exception. Armed with about $30 million in cap space is an enviable position to be in, and the Golden Knights find themselves both free to spend and serving as an attractive destination for players on the open market, especially those bereft of a Cup.

Enter Tyler Bozak. The 32-year-old center played nine seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a moribund franchise for several of his prime years, and lately an apparent Stanley Cup contender thanks to a slew of young talent. Given Bozak’s age, he is probably not part of the Toronto plan moving forward and could look to ply his trade elsewhere.

Season in review

  • 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 81 regular season games with the Maple Leafs.
  • Had a shooting percentage less than half his previously established career rate (15.1% from 2009-17, 7.1% in 2017-18)
  • Four points (two goals, two assists) in seven playoff games with the Maple Leafs.
  • Posted career highs in shots per game (1.90) and Relative Corsi For Percentage (CF% Rel) with +4.5.
  • Ended the season as the active career points leader for the Maple Leafs among players who have never eaten hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup.

Free agency status

Following nine seasons in Toronto, which saw him most recently finish out a five-year, $21MM contract ($4.2MM AAV), Bozak is likely to hit the market, as the Maple Leafs are anything but a sure bet to sign him. The Vancouver Canucks have been linked, however according to a recent report from Iain MacIntyre, they have been likely priced out. TSN’s Ray Ferraro put the estimate at a three-year, $5 million AAV deal, which may be a hard sell for a player that turns 33 in March.

As an unrestricted free agent, Bozak is eligible to field offers from all teams on July 1.

Strengths

Bozak puts up the points, having averaged 50 points per 82 games since he came into the league. Despite being considering a quality passer — which is true, considering he is in the top 10 percent of forwards in shot assists per 60 minutes over the past four seasons — the veteran pivot is somewhat of a sharp-shooter as well. To wit, Bozak has shot above 12 percent in eight of his nine seasons, a success rate that outpaces the likes of Alex Ovechkin. He has also shined lately in theoretical analytics, specifically the area of expected goals for percentage (xGF%). More on that can be seen in the graphic below.

Weaknesses

Bozak is not the center you want on the ice in the defensive zone. As such, the Leafs have given him over 57% of his zone starts in the offensive zone in two of the past three seasons. Don’t let Bozak’s two fifth-place Selke Trophy votes fool you, the veteran center struggles mightily in his own end. As strong as he built up play, he was just about as weak in preventing other teams from doing the same. While ability to play on the penalty kill is deomnstrably overrated, Bozak has simply not done it all that much, playing over 100 minutes short-handed in just one of his nine seasons. Oftentimes, you’ll want your third line center to kill a few penalties.

Also, Bozak is well past the friendly side of the aging curve. The Regina, SK native will be in at least his age 32-34 seasons for the length of his contract, assuming Ferraro’s aforementioned term estimate is accurate. Hockey players almost never get better past 30, and there is nothing in Bozak’s game that suggests he will buck the trend.

Fit with the Golden Knights

Bozak does have a solid fit with the Golden Knights. He has had great success with speedy wingers in the past, most notably Phil Kessel, and most recently Mitch Marner. Vegas is a team predicated on speed, at both a foot-speed and cognitive level. In that sense, he fits in. He is also a marked improvement over Vegas’ current third-line center, Cody Eakin, in almost every category:

Bill Comeau’s SKATR Tool

Eakin gets a nod for his defense, but it is not enough to overcome his red flags in myriad other areas.

A $5MM price tag for a center that can threaten to score 50 points sounds reasonable, but it would be a signing that is counterproductive towards what Vegas is building. While they can certainly improve their middle-six in the offseason, signing an old center for term is not the most prudent strategy. Vegas’ core, sans Marc-Andre Fleury, are all 27-year-olds or younger.

Bozak does not make sense as a part of this group, and Vegas would be better off investing capital and term elsewhere. The center market is very thin outside of John Tavares, Paul Stastny and Joe Thornton—no use trying to grab whatever scraps are available at an unwelcome markup. Besides, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which prospects Cody Glass and/or Nick Suzuki crack the lineup in 2018-19.