Morning Smoke

March 5, 2012 11:11 am

Most fans have that player that they just can’t stand. Regardless of how the individual performs there always ends up being a way to complain and criticize him. Readers of this blog know that there are two such players on the Toronto Maple Leafs that I beat down on a consistent basis. The first being Tyler Bozak. Since the inception of this blog, I have called out Bozak and claimed he was not fit to be on the Leafs’ roster. While I didn’t say he was a poor NHL player, I just felt that Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski, Matthew Lombardi, David Steckel and Darryl Boyce were all ahead of him on the depth chart. Yet with only 17 games left in the season I have been forced to endure Bozak playing on the first line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Much to my displeasure Bozak receives more power play ice time (2:45) than any other Leaf pivot. Throughout last season as well as earlier this season, you would often see Bozak struggle during puck battles along the boards. His strength was an issue, and seeing the way his play dropped off late in games, and on the back end of back to back nights, conditioning was definitely a problem as well. However the former University of Denver Pioneer has begun to really battle of late. A first line centre he is not and I will argue that endlessly, but Bozak has really begun to impress me of late.

Bozak’s strengths are his skating and determination. While not the fastest of skaters he definitely has a quickness about his game that allows him to dart into holes at the appropriate times. Bozak also is a strong faceoff man currently winning 53.1% of his draws on the season. Signed through next season at only $1.5 million, he does not hurt your team against the salary cap. Ideally he slots in as a third line centre. However with new coach Randy Carlyle a big proponent of a shutdown pivot spearheading his third line, Bozak’s spot on the team comes into question for next season. On pace for 18 goals and 47 points I will say that while I sill hate seeing him playing with Kessel and Lupul, I have slowly started to change my tune about #42 in blue and white. He’s been battling ever since he went undrafted in the NHL, and I’m happy to admit that I was wrong about him.

The second player that I have been fiercely critical of is goalie Jonas Gustavsson. The object of my anger many times this season, I have not been easy on The Monster. Much like Bozak, there have been many times that I begged for the Leafs to just rid themselves of this player. My preference all season has been for the Leafs to play James Reimer ahead of Gustavsson as much as possible. I am admittedly an apologist for Reimer while I never give the benefit of the doubt to Jonas. What I will say is that both goalies have been dreadful at times this year, but on a nightly basis I cannot deny the fact that Gustavsson has given the Leafs a better chance of winning than Reimer. Moving forward I still think that the Leafs will stick with Reimer and allow Gustavsson to explore the UFA market this summer, but for the time being he is the better option between the pipes for the blue and white.

Similar to Bozak, what has impressed me about Gustavsson is his ability to battle. While he does allow the awful goal more so than is acceptable, Gustavsson has displayed some perseverance and character this season as he has on numerous occasions emerged from the doghouse to steal the net away from Reimer. The big Sweede recorded his career high 17th victory on Saturday night against Montreal, and deserves full credit for making some big saves at the right times for the fragile Leafs. Currently his 2.85 goals against average is the best on the team and respectable when compared around the league. However his .905 save percentage is poor and is a number that the Leafs will need to see rise between now and the end of the season.

While I don’t see Bozak as ever being a capable #1 centre, I also never see Gustavsson being a capable #1 goalie. What both players have proven to me this season though is that they are both legitimate NHL players that can be counted on to contribute. Both players were free agent signings that cost the Leafs absolutely nothing but money to acquire. They are both poorly utilized and placed into tough situations, but if the Leafs are going to make a late season push to the post season then both Bozak and Gustavsson must play major roles. For the first time since they donned the blue and white sweaters though I’ll admit I have faith in them.

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