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In a bit of Sunday food for thought, Larry Brooks of the New York Post has effectively legitimized those Bozak rumors from early last week that suggested the New York Rangers had kicked tires on the 31-year old center.
If the Maple Leafs’ addition of Marleau prompts the club to solicit offers for Tyler Bozak, the 31-year-old center whose average ice time has declined from 20:57 to 16:26 over the past four seasons, expect the Rangers to be among the interested parties.
Nick Holden likely would be the opening ante to get in on Bozak, a one-year right-handed rental at $4.2 million who habitually has excelled at the dots (56.7 last year, 53.6 for his eight-year career), is capable offensively (18 goals, 37 assists, 55 points last season) and would slot into the middle two or three with Kevin Hayes behind Mika Zibanejad.
While Brooks’ report doesn’t confirm the Rangers have touched base with the Maple Leafs, it does confirm a level of interest worth noting.
The Rangers Need Another Center
Having lost two NHL caliber centers to start the current offseason—Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes in a trade, and Oscar Lindberg to the Vegas Golden Knights via expansion—the Rangers were already expected to be in the market for at least one center via trade or free agency. David Desharnais was signed a little under a week ago, presumably to backfill the role of Oscar Lindberg as the Blueshirts’ fourth-line center, which still leaves a sizable hole in either the two or three spot where Kevin Hayes is expected to compete for one of the available roles.
Brooks did confirm in this same report that the Rangers had a significant interest in bringing in 38-year old Joe Thornton, with the two sides having “extended, productive talks”, but Thornton ultimately re-upped with the San Jose Sharks for another year worth upward of $8M.
However, aside from Thornton, Unrestricted Free Agency (UFA) was never a very promising or deep pool for the Rangers to find a solution. Many of the other options available signed deals far too lucrative and/or lengthy for the Rangers to justifiably entertain—including players like Nick Bonino, Brian Boyle, and Martin Hanzal, for example—which explains the Rangers’ would be interest in Bozak.
With Restricted Free Agent (RFA) Mika Zibanejad in need of a long-term deal that should carry an Annual Average Value (AAV) of at least $5M, and with special thanks to the $2.9M that just opened up due to Kevin Klein’s decision to retire, the Rangers project to have a little over $3M to play with in acquiring one more center.
Making the Case
As Brooks noted, defenseman Nick Holden, who carries with him a $1.65M AAV for one more year, could be used to offset the salary cap space needed to bring in Bozak. In fact, if no other significantly priced items were included in the deal, a one-for-one trade should leave both teams salary cap compliant to start the season.
Plus, there’s much to like about Bozak beyond the handful of positives Brooks shared in his column. Not only is he an ace-in-the-hole at the dot—an area of the game the Rangers could surely improve—but he’s a fantastic skater with solid two-way instincts. Should the Rangers acquire him, those attributes should translate well to Alain Vigneault’s system that relies so heavily on quality skating and intelligence in all three zones.
Best of all, Bozak is a quality special teams player. His 63 Power Play Points (PPP) are fourth-highest on the Leafs over the last five seasons behind Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel (now with the Pittsburgh Penguins), and James van Riemsdyk.
In terms of possession metrics, he’s also been particularly reliable over the last two seasons in which the Leafs have bounced back with a star-studded cast of young talent. He has a two-year Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 52.1%, and a Fenwick-for percentage (FF%) of 50.55% over the same span, all at five-on-five, and all while skating with only a slight edge toward offensive zone starts (oZS%) (54.85 oZS% to 45.15 dZS%).
Oddly, though his total time-on-ice has fallen each of the last three seasons, falling to a career-low 16:25 last season, as Brooks highlighted originally, his Points Per Game Played (P/GP) has actually increased in each of those seasons, as he finished last year with a 0.71 P/GP average. At the age of 31 (he’ll turn 32 in March) it’s difficult to project just how likely it is to continue to increase again this season, but even if it stayed flat, that’s still a projection of 58 points over 82 games, which is stellar second-line center production in today’s NHL.
A Need-for-Need Deal?
Given the Rangers rather dire need to find a quality second- or third-line center, Bozak is clearly a fine trade target to zero in on. The fact he’s a UFA at the end of the season is actually a positive, too, because it minimizes the risk should the trade derail his progress, or should he fail to find his footing under the bright lights of Broadway. In dealing Holden to the Leafs as part of the deal, they would also be trading from a surplus of NHL-caliber defensemen who can’t all make the opening lineup now that the Rangers have re-signed Brendan Smith and acquired Kevin Shattenkirk.
Conversely, from the Leafs’ perspective, Holden, who scored 35 points for the Rangers last season, is also a UFA at the end of the upcoming season and shares a similar risk/reward scenario for a young Leafs group who could arguably improve upon their third pairing while providing quality veteran leadership.
Still, assuming the cost isn’t too much more than a return of Nick Holden, it’s a deal the Rangers should absolutely be willing to make. Bozak would be a fine stop-gap solution to their middle-six depth problem, and might even help to keep Kevin Hayes protected in the third center position in which he registered career-high numbers playing at this past season. The Rangers have a strong NHL-ready or near-NHL-ready prospect in Lias Andersson, who they took seventh overall in this past Entry Draft, who should be in competition for a middle-six center role with the Blueshirts this season or next, but unless the Rangers are supremely confident in his ability to make the jump immediately (and to succeed once he does so), someone like Bozak is exactly the kind of player worth bringing in in the short-term.