As the season draws near and players start to appear in New Jersey ahead of training camp, the off-season has just about reached its close. Just because the season is close doesn't mean the Devils can't still make improvements to their roster, though. Last week, I wrote about my concerns regarding the Devils' depth chart at center. Heading into the camp, the Devils appear to have a Plan A of some combination of Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod as their third and fourth line centers, a situation I would characterize as "mildly concerning." Just because that seems to be their plan at the moment doesn't mean Tom Fitzgerald can't add additional pieces before the season opens.
Since the Tomas Tatar deal was inked, there hasn’t been much news linking the Devils to any more players or big moves, aside from a few stray PK Subban trade rumors from iffy sources. Despite things seeming to be quiet on the trade and signing front, there are a couple names still floating on the market as UFAs that could aid the Devils as they look to have a successful season to build on in 2021-22. One name I've felt would be a solid fit in New Jersey since early free agency is Tyler Bozak.
Bozak is an interesting player to profile because he spent most of his prime probably miscast as a top-line center in Toronto. A quick look at his career numbers show a player with somewhat Zajacian scoring stats. He has produced pretty consistently his whole career, including last season when he dealt with some injury troubles, at a pace of around 0.6 points per game (with a few fluctuations). He’s never been a prolific scorer, but he’s also consistently been a contributor of significance on the scoresheet. In terms of career play-driving impacts, Bozak has largely been middling, with some positive and negative years of net impact but with recent years showing a tilt toward becoming a more defensive forward (see HockeyViz heat maps below for his career 5v5 xG impacts). The picture it paints is that Bozak has been a capable middle-six (and earlier on maybe top-six) center for a decade-plus.
Bozak spent his first nine years with the Leafs, initially in that up-jumped role as top center but then taking on a middle-six role with better Leafs teams later on. In the past three seasons, Bozak has been a part of the Blues organization, including 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 has put him in more of a defensive role in that 3C position, but Bozak has contributed capably and continued to provide depth scoring into his mid-thirties. His three-year player card below from Evolving Hockey shows what kind of player Bozak has been relative to a replacement-level player in St Louis.
Essentially, the GAR numbers say that Bozak is a perfectly adequate NHL forward. Luckily, that is pretty much all the Devils need at this point. While it’s certainly possible that Boqvist or McLeod can handle the duties of a 3C, they have never been given a role of that significance and both have had uneven development paths up to this point. Bozak, a proven veteran with a long career of effective NHL play including a recent successful turn in St Louis, would give the Devils a lot more stability down the middle. Perhaps most importantly, he would lessen the possibility that the team is relying on one of two players with less than 100 NHL games to fill a top-six center spot in the case of an injury (though I suspect Pavel Zacha might be forced back into the middle in such a scenario).
I don’t think Bozak is a world-beater or an answer to all of the Devils problems, but I do think I’d be a lot more comfortable with the position the team is in down the middle heading toward the season if Tom Fitzgerald made one last acquisition this offseason to bring in a player like him (for what it’s worth, Elliotte Friedman reported last night Bozak is close to a decision but didn’t give any specifics on the teams vying for his services outside of some speculation regarding Pittsburgh’s injury situation). He is versatile, wins faceoffs (career 53.6 FO%), and can score a little bit to boot. He would add some stability to the team’s forward group behind Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and at this point, is unlikely to carry a price tag with much risk associated with it. In a sense, he’s a slightly younger version of Travis Zajac, which fits, because that is essentially the role he’d be filling in 2021-22 (and the player he’d be more-or-less replacing from last year’s roster). Some might be inclined to just let the “kids” have a run at things in the bottom-six this year but we’ve seen how fast Plan A flies out the window in recent years in New Jersey. Tom Fitzgerald should have some contingencies in place for when things go wrong, and I think trying to secure a short one- (or maybe two-) year deal to Bozak would be a smart bit of business.