Surrounding the current Leafs' struggles is the fact that the team's top scorers have not produced. How much can be blamed on the decision to continue playing Tyler Bozak with Phil Kessel?
Toronto - February 6, 2015 - The Leafs are on the verge of setting a franchise record tonight, for consecutive losses in a season. Should they lose to New Jersey, they will have lost 11 straight games. One of the consistent problems the team has faced over this stretch has been a serious lack of production from its top line, specifically Phil Kessel.
The Leafs top line has simply not produced since Carlyle’s departure and it’s left many scratching their heads. How can the Leafs’ get their top goal scorer, and his linemates, scoring again? Barring any roster moves, the answer is simple. Stop playing Tyler Bozak with Phil Kessel. And do so for more than half a game.
Now many are quick to jump to Bozak’s defence. However the only excusable defence to this point has been that, despite his shortcomings, Bozak and Kessel have great chemistry. A ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality. Well guess what, it’s broke. So what happened? Why did the scoring dry up?
The answer lies not in what Bozak does, but rather, what playing him with Kessel forces Kessel to do. Bozak isn’t ‘bad’. He’s solid on special teams and in the shootout. He’s a great faceoff man and he play’s the game intelligently. However you see how his play negatively affects Kessel when you go back and look at how Bozak scores.
Tyler Bozak cannot create plays, but rather needs them created for him. I went back through all 19 goals Bozak scored in the 2013/14 season and here’s what I found.
Of Bozak’s 19 goals last season 2 were on a breakaway and that’s including a penalty shot. Two were odd man rushes and one was an empty net goal from the neutral zone. This leaves 14 goals as a result of the Leafs possessing the puck in the offensive zone.
Tyler Bozak scored 15 of his 19 goals on ‘1-touch’ plays. Meaning that on nearly 80% of his goals last year, Bozak touched the puck just long enough to put it on net. More importantly though, it means he was not involved in the creation of the scoring chance He was just the recipient of good passes and simply being in the right place at the right time.
Furthermore 12 of his goals came from in close below the hash marks in the immediate vicinity of the crease, often on jam plays or scrambled pucks. Again, another sign that he isn’t creating the offence, just benefiting from other’s efforts. And finally, Phil Kessel was the primary assist on 7 of Bozak’s 19 goals. So to reiterate, Tyler Bozak scores his goals when his teammates do the work. He does not create offense.
Here’s why this may be the single largest factor affecting Kessel’s play. If you are Peter Horachek, you want Phil Kessel finishing plays. You want him to be the player shooting the puck, it’s what you pay the man to do. He cannot do this when he’s playing with Bozak though. With Bozak on the ice, Kessel has to be the primary puck mover. Kessel is the one skating the puck through the neutral zone, and he’s making the first pass in the offensive zone when he should be the one receiving that pass. Now in order to get the puck back to your world class goal scorer you’re going to have hold the zone for a few seconds and most likely make a couple of passes. In order to this you need to have good puck possession, something that Tyler Bozak is notoriously bad it. With all of that in mind are you really surprised that they stopped scoring? I’m more surprised they produced for as long as they did. Phil Kessel has been carrying Bozak for years now, and honestly I think it’s just caught up to him. Kessel needs to be able to focus on playing his game, not trying to set up his linemates.
So how does this get fixed? Well I expect Bozak and Kessel to stay together until at least the trade deadline, presumably to try and boost Bozak’s numbers and increase his trade value. After the deadline though, you staple Kessel to Nazem Kadri and you do not change that under any circumstances until September.
I’m sick and tired of of seeing Kessel and Kadri for a period or two and then have coaches default back to the Bozak and Kessel combination. It doesn’t work. Stop it. Most people learn pretty quickly that putting the kitchen knife in the electrical outlet is a bad idea, why haven’t they got it yet?
Play Kadri and Kessel together, let them learn each other’s play style and get some chemistry. Kessel needs a playmaker in the middle of the ice to be consistent. It’s the one thing he’s never had. We keep asking what’s wrong and the answer is simple. Kessel has been having to create for Bozak. Put a player in the middle, that for once will create for Kessel. Let Kessel be the beneficiary of great passing and rebounds as opposed to being the guy needed to create those passes.
What do you think? Agree, disagree? Let me know and follow me on twitter.