(Photo: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)
I’ve heard a lot of chatter lately, both online and in real life, about Tyler Bozak. This chatter seems to essentially boil down to two things: People comparing Bozak to Steen because of his contract, and people comparing Bozak to Schenn because he essentially supplanted him at 2nd line Center. Bozak is neither of them and it’s simply unfair to compare him to either.
The Steen Comparison
The main comparison between Bozak and Steen seems to be their contracts. Bozak is currently under contract at $5mil per year through 2020-21 and then he becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA). Steen is currently making $5.75 and is also under contract through 2020-21 when he becomes a UFA.
There are two major differences though. The first is their respective No Trade Clauses (NTC). Steen’s is a full No-Trade Clause, which doesn’t expire until February 1, 2021. This basically means the Blues can’t move him in a trade until the deadline of the last season of his contract. Bozak, on the other hand, has a Modified NTC. His NTC requires him to submit a 10 team no-trade list and runs until January 31, 2021.
One month before the trade deadline, the Blues are free to trade Bozak wherever they’d like. That means that, unlike Steen, if Bozak becomes surplus to requirements, the Blues can flip him for picks fairly easily and without the cumbersome negotiations that accompany Full NTC trades.
The other major difference is age. Steen is currently 35. He will be 37 when his contract finally ends. Bozak is only 32, turns 33 March 19th, and will only be 35 when his contract expires. That makes a big difference. Usually, the space from 32-35 is a period of slow, gradual decline, as a player starts to lose the speed, quickness, agility, and health that comes with youth. However, there is usually a fairly steep cliff that most athletes fall off shortly after that.
Steen has already fallen off that cliff, or is right at the precipice of it, depending on who you ask. Bozak is still a ways away from it and will most likely not be a Blue by the time he gets there. Is $5mil a little much for Bozak? Sure. I would put his value closer to $3.5mil, but that $5mil per year also came with just a 3-year contract. It was reported at the beginning of the season by multiple sources, including Bozak’s agent, that the Blues paid him more money to have a shorter term contract. Make no mistake, that was done specifically, so they aren’t dragging around another Alex Steen.
The Schenn Comparison
Brayden Schenn is a talented hockey player. He isn’t maybe the best teammate, and I’m not entirely sure how much he actually likes being in St. Louis, but there is no mistake he is good. Schenn has had some problems though. He’s never had a 30 goal season. He’s only eclipsed 60 pts once in his career, last year with the Blues.
However, the main reason for that, at least to me, is that he’s never really been deployed where he is good until he came here. The Blues have given Schenn the opportunity to prove that he is in fact, the first line player he keeps saying he is and he took that chance and ran with it. Last year he showed that he can, in fact, play first line minutes and put up decent first line numbers. He did all of that at Center as well.
Then the Blues brought in O’Reilly and all of a sudden, the first line that Schenn thought he had won fair and square was gone. Just like that, he was back to second line Center. Then in February, Berube moved Schenn from 2nd line Center to the first-line Wing alongside O’Reilly and Tarasenko, and bang, he suddenly morphed back into the Brayden Schenn of last year.
Just in February, most of which he spent with the top line, he got 10 assists and 12 pts while averaging 19:18 min a night, and all of that in just 10 games. Also in just the 3 games he’s played in March, he managed to tack on an additional 2 goals and 3 assists, with 19:25 min. a game. In that same stretch, Bozak has rattled off just 4 goals, 6 assists and 16 min a night, all while playing in 6 more games.
There is no question that Brayden Schenn is a better hockey player than Tyler Bozak. However, there is one major stat that is left out here. Schenn has a FO% this year of only 47.1% and career of only 46.2%. Bozak’s numbers in comparison are 54.8% and 53.7% respectively. Bozak also starts his shifts split fairly evenly between offensive zone and defensive zone, 51.2% offense and 48.8% defense.
Schenn on the other hand, in his time with the Blues, currently sits at about a 60/40 split. That says that the coach doesn’t like him taking faceoffs in the D-Zone, mostly because he doesn’t win them enough. Basically speaking, Bozak didn’t take Schenn’s spot on the team, he took his spot as 2nd line Center, so that Schenn could be moved where he would be more effective, top line on the Wing.
The other part of the Schenn to Bozak comparison seems to be contractual as well. Bozak is here making $5mil until 2021. Schenn’s contract, on the other hand, expires in 2020 and there seems to be this feeling that somehow keeping Bozak, will mean getting rid of Schenn and that in order to re-sign Schenn, we will need to get rid of Bozak. Simply put, that’s not true.
The Blues will, over the next couple of years, be shedding some major cap, primarily in the form of Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson, possibly a trade of Jake Allen, a buyout of Alex Steen, and even the possible trade or walk of Pietrangelo. There is no reason to assume that keeping Bozak will require allowing Schenn to walk or that trading him will somehow guarantee Schenn staying.
There is, however, plenty of speculation that Schenn doesn’t want to stay and that he has never truly settled in St. Louis. He still craves the bright lights and big city, or possibly a trip back to Canada to play closer to home. His is also very likely to want something in the neighborhood of $7mil per year for 7 years, and probably a Full-NTC.
None of which I would be comfortable giving a player that seems to have no interest in doing what the team wants if it doesn’t align with what he wants. He’s never really seemed to become part of this city. Toss in the plethora of young talent coming up the Blues’ pipeline: Thomas, Kyrou, Kostin, and Bokk, just to name the big ones, and Schenn starts to make less and less sense. Schenn is good, but I don’t think he’s doing anything that Schwartz, Perron and possibly even Fabbri, or some combination of those three, couldn’t do without him.
“If Bozak isn’t the next Steen and he isn’t taking Schenn’s job, then what is he?”
The answer to that is actually quite simple, he’s a stop gap. Robert Thomas is a Centerman, so is Dominik Bokk. Thomas will likely be playing that position next season. Bokk is still a couple of years out at best. Bozak is here to cover the Center spot until they are ready. O’Reilly is the #1 Center and Thomas will be the #2 within the next 2-3 years. Bokk projects to end up #3 a year or 2 after that. Until then, Bozak is the #2 and then the #3 eventually, to be replaced in both spots by Thomas and Bokk respectively.
Both Thomas and Bokk project to be better than Bozak, and it’s not that much of a fantasy to imagine a day when Thomas will be the #1 Center and Bokk the #2. That day is a long way off though and in the meantime, the Blues need bodies to fill the Center spots until the kids are ready. Bozak is far from average in that respect.
Tyler’s 55% faceoff number is top 20 in the NHL right now. That combined with O’Reilly’s equally stellar faceoff statistics, means that as long as one of them is taking the faceoff, you are as close to guaranteed possession of the puck as you can get in the NHL. That is especially important on the powerplay and will continue to be even once Bozak is replaced as the regular 2nd line Center.
In summation, Bozak is neither the disastrous contract some have made him out to be nor the guy who is running a better player in Schenn, out. He is getting both of those reputations for obvious reasons, but neither is justified or deserved. What Bozak is, is a solid NHL Centerman that will give you 15-20 goals and probably 20-30 assists a year and do it all with close to a 55% faceoff number.
He will do that for 2 more years and will likely hand the spots over to Thomas and Bokk, with a handshake and a “thank you” from the Blues and then head off, maybe to retirement or maybe to another team for a couple of years. Even if that timeline happens to accelerate, the Blues can still flip him for a draft pick to a team desperate for Centermen.
Regardless, Bozak is not going to break the Blues with an albatross of a contract and he’s not going to “cost us Schenn”, who may not even be coming back regardless. All he is going to do is provide some solid 2nd and 3rd line Center, with some PP and PK time thrown in. He’ll add a few goals, and do it all while winning most of his faceoffs. That’s all the Blues wanted from Bozak. It’s all we should expect, and so far, it’s exactly what we’ve gotten.