January 13, 2010
Can Bozak help get Kessel rolling?
By BILL LANKHOF, QMI AGENCY
Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson isn’t expecting the world from call-up Tyler Bozak.
"Just a Gordie Howe hat-trick: A goal, an assist and a fight," deadpanned Wilson, in his part-time job as unofficial stand-up comedian to the Toronto media. Actually, Bozak's assignment is much simpler -- get the puck, pass it to Phil Kessel, then wait for the red light to come on.
And, thus begins the resurrection of the Toronto Maple Leafs as envisioned way back last autumn by general manager Brian Burke. Remember those happy days? Remember training camp when Bozak and fellow collegians Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg were anointed as a potential Kid Line. Never happened, of course.
“We’re all pretty young. They put us together in training camp I think they wanted to see what we could do and we had a pretty good camp. But it was hard to keep all three of us up here,” said Bozak, after the Leafs’ morning skate in preparation for Tuesday night’s game against Carolina. Back then, this was still a team with dreams of playoffs and silly notions like kissing Stanley.
Instead, the Leafs went bust, Kessel went into a slump, Bozak played one game with the Leafs, ended up with the Marlies where he got swine flu and lost 12 pounds to slow his development. Stalberg hurt his shoulder. He’s still with the Leafs but has a mere two goals in 16 games. Hanson has one goal in 11 games during two career cameos with Toronto, but remains with the Marlies.
“I still believe in the future, we could end up on one line. Right now, we have to show we belong,” said Bozak, who’s return can be seen in two ways.
An optimist will see his second coming as a harbinger that Burke’s vision of better days does not lie far off. A pessimist sees it as just one more indication that, with this team, nothing works as advertised. Ever. That this is just another smokescreen to hide an ugly truth: This is one Humpty Dumpty nobody knows how to put back together and Bozak is probably just more duct tape.
Wilson is on the side of optimism, although he doesn’t expect Bozak to be either Kessel or the Leafs’ saviour.
“He’s a good skater. We just want him to relax, move pucks like he’s always done.”
Which is precisely what happened when Bozak intercepted a breakout pass in the neutral zone, banked a pass off the boards that eventually turned into Toronto’s second goal. Minutes later, he forced Cam Ward to make a big save when he set Kessel up at the edge of the crease.
Nobody, not even the Leafs, know if this is the foretelling of a new era, the advent of that Kid Line hinted at last fall — or just another stopgap. But there were two more set-ups that resulted in Kessel opportunities, if not goals.
“If he’s playing well after a couple games, he’ll continue to get opportunities. If not, he’s got another notch in his belt of experiences to take back (to the Marlies),” explained Wilson. “We signed him last year with the hope that eventually he’d be on our team. Possibly this year. It’s an opportunity for him ... a natural progression.”
Since leaving university, Bozak has four goals and 16 assists in 32 games with the Marlies.
“That’ll help me make the transition,” Bozak said. “The first few games (in the AHL) were tough. Then, you get up here it’s even a notch higher. Guys are faster ... stronger. Coming out of college, I didn’t know what to expect, then I got swine flu. I lost 12 pounds. It’s been a roller-coaster ride.”
Last night, he was back on the coaster, losing a battle along the boards in the final minute that resulted in an empty net goal, sealing defeat.
“After the first shift the nerves went away,” said Bozak, “but it’s disappointing because the main goal is to win.”