As the season draws near and players begin to appear in New Jersey ahead of training camp, the offseason draws to a close. Just because the season is around the corner doesn’t mean the Devils can’t improve their roster just yet. Last week I wrote about my concerns about the Devils’ depth card in the center. Coming into the camp, the Devils appear to have a Plan A of a combination of Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod as third and fourth row crosses, a situation I would describe as “slightly concerning.” Just because it seems like their plan right now doesn’t mean that Tom Fitzgerald can’t add some extra pieces before the season opens.
Since the Tomas Tatar deal was signed, there hasn’t been much news linking the Devils with other players or big moves aside from a few rumors of PK Subban trading coming from questionable sources. While things appear to be calm on the trade and signing front, a few names are still floating around the market as UFAs that could help the Devils as they look to have a successful season to build on in the future. 2021-2022. One name that I have felt would fit New Jersey perfectly since the inception of free agency is Tyler Bozak.
Bozak is an interesting player to profile as he spent most of his heyday probably misinterpreted as a frontline center in Toronto. A quick glance at his career numbers shows a player with somewhat Zajacian scoring stats. He’s produced fairly consistently throughout his career, including last season when he faced injury issues, at a rate of around 0.6 points per game (with some fluctuations). He’s never been a prolific goalscorer, but he’s also always been a big contributor on the scoresheet. In terms of career-playing impacts, Bozak has been largely average, with a few positive and negative years of net impact, but recent years showing a tendency to become a more defensive forward (see HockeyViz heatmaps below). below for his 5v5 xG career impacts). The image he paints is that Bozak has been a capable center of the middle six (and earlier perhaps the top six) for more than a decade.
Bozak spent his first nine years with the Leafs, first in that leading role, but later assumed a role in the mid-six with better Leafs teams. For the past three seasons, Bozak has been part of the Blues’ organization, most notably the 2019 Stanley Cup champion team where he was a third line center behind Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. His time in St. Louis placed him in a more defensive role in that 3C position, but Bozak contributed competently and continued to provide deep scores until his mid-thirties. His three-year player card below from Evolving Hockey shows what kind of player Bozak has been compared to a replacement player in St. Louis.
Basically, the GAR numbers say that Bozak is a perfectly adequate NHL forward. Fortunately, that’s about all the devils need at this point. While it’s certainly possible that either Boqvist or McLeod could take on the tasks of a 3C, they never had a role of this importance and the two have had uneven development paths up to this point. Bozak, a proven veteran with a long career of efficient NHL play, including a recent successful turn in St. Louis, would give the Devils a lot more stability in the middle. Perhaps more importantly, it would reduce the possibility that the team would rely on one of the two players with less than 100 NHL games to take a top-six spot if injured (although I suspect Pavel Zacha might be forced back into the middle in such a scenario).
I don’t think Bozak is a world champion or an answer to all of the Devils’ problems, but I think I would be a lot more comfortable with the position the team are in mid-season if Tom Fitzgerald made one final acquisition this offseason to bring in a player like him (for what it’s worth, Elliotte Friedman reported last night that Bozak was close to a decision but gave no details on which teams are vying for his services aside from some speculation regarding Pittsburgh’s injury situation). He is versatile, wins faceoffs (career 53.6 FO%), and can score a little to start. He would add some stability to the team’s forward group behind Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and at this point he’s unlikely to carry a prize with much associated risk. In a sense, he’s a slightly younger version of Travis Zajac, which is fitting, as that’s essentially the role he would fill in 2021-2022 (and the player he would more or less replace compared to the roster. from last year) . Some might be inclined to let the “kids” have fun in the bottom six this year, but we’ve seen how quickly Plan A has gone out the window in recent years in New Jersey. Tom Fitzgerald should have contingencies in place for when things go wrong, and I think trying to get a short- (or maybe a two-year deal with Bozak would be a good deal.