The St. Louis Blues are being faced with one of the worst situations a sport team could dream of. Right after the team established them as truly championship-caliber, for the first time in 50 years, both their star, league-best captain and their prized young star are expiring. Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn are must-haves for the Cup-caliber Blues but with only $2 million in cap space (in the case of a flat cap) and the duo likely to cost upwards of $12 million, St. Louis is in a bit of a rutt.
General manager Doug Armstrong is well aware of this. He recently noted that the team is going to need to get “creative” to solve the problem they’re faced with; shocking nobody with the statement. Of the possible options to clear cap space, some of the fanbase’s favorite options include Alex Steen, Jake Allen, and Tyler Bozak. However, each player has their own unique reasons to stick around. After looking at the case to be made for Steen and Allen (linked here and here respectively), we’ll finish off the trio by looking at why Bozak needs to stay in St. Louis.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Tyler Bozak is, obviously, the newest Blue of the trio. Steen has been with St. Louis for over a decade and Allen made his debut in the 2012-13 season. Bozak was late to join, though, being signed as a free agent by St. Louis in the 2018 summer. He was inked to a three-year contract with a hefty cap hit of $5 million, with a modified-no trade clause to boot. It was a surprising signing from Armstrong, who was never one for frivolous off-season spending.
But the 2018 summer was different for Armstrong. Through the guidance of a seemingly sixth sense, Armstrong inked free agents Bozak, David Perron, and Pat Maroon to contracts, effectively reshaping the Blues offense in the process. It was a shocking series of events but one that was met with overall positivity, as it showed Army’s willingness to spend big to win big.
And that’s exactly what the newcomers did. Maroon held an essential grit-and-grind role, Perron held a role as a top-end offensive dynamo, and Bozak settled in as the reliable centerman that the Blues had sought after for years. All three were crucial for St. Louis’ eventual Cup run, with Bozak (and his wife, Molly) becoming fan-favorites in the process.
But Bozak’s on-ice performance is what matters most. He hasn’t wowed anyone with his point totals, scoring 38 and 29 points respectively through his first two seasons as a Blue. But his advanced stats have certainly been something to gawk at, especially this year.
In the 2019-20 season, no St. Louis player recorded a better EVxGA/60 (even-strength expected goals-against per-60 minutes) than Bozak; a stat that measures shot-quality-against while the player is on the ice, essentially, and is often regarded as the best gauge of a player’s defensive potency. And Bozak topped the team despite the Blues featuring Selke-winner Ryan O’Reilly, his just-as-good counterpart Jaden Schwartz, and historically-strong defensive-forward Alex Steen. To even be mentioned among these defensive-dynamos is a badge of honor. To lead them is a seriously impressive feat.
In fact, Bozak’s EVxGA/60 ranked 18th in the entire league this season, gauging by players to play at least 750 minutes of ice time. 18th out of 373 players. Does this mean he is automatically better than O’Reilly and Schwartz defensively? Well, no, not necessarily. But it does go a long way in showing just how potent the centerman has been this season, simply by his inclusion among their names.
Unfortunately, Bozak’s offense doesn’t live up to the hype set by his defense. His EVxGF/60 (even-strength expected goals-for per-60) ranked 18th among 27 Blues player to play at least 50 minutes of even-strength time this season, a far-from-honorable ranking, even worse than Ivan Barbashev’s ranking. This is despite Bozak ranking 12th in SF/60 (shots-for per-60), showing that his choice of shot selection is fairly low-quality.
Thankfully, his seriously terrific defense still managed to make up for the poor offense. Bozak’s GAR (goals-above-replacement) ranked seventh on the Blues this year, second among any bottom-six players, behind Robert Thomas. His WAR (wins-above-replacement) and SPAR (standing-points-above-replacement) are both ranked eighth but the same sentiment holds true: they’re the second-best of any Blues bottom-six player.
This is a whole lot of numbers. A better way to visualize all of this is through the player cards created by Twitter user @JFresh. These cards showcase nearly every important advanced stat, even adding a calculated market value to boot. Here is Tyler Bozak’s:
Those who have read the cases for Steen and Allen know that there is a lot to break down from these cards. Most notably in Bozak’s is the left-most graph. This effectively shows off what has been aforementioned. His offense over the last three seasons has been fairly awful, only clocking in in the 33rd percentile... not a great tally for a player making $5 million. Thankfully, everything else is scary good. His even-strength defense is close to Selke worthy, ranking in the 92nd percentile. His power-play ability, something he hasn’t shown off much of in St. Louis, is also terrific.
But it’s his ability on the penalty-kill that is his true selling point. His penalty-kill GAR is in the 97 percentile. This effectively flaunts him as one of the best penalty-killers in the league, an absolutely invaluable trait. Unfortunately, the Blues haven’t been using him to his full potential. Despite his jaw-dropping ability on the PK, he hasn’t even been a top-four option for the shorthanded-Blues in his two seasons in St. Louis. This sounds fairly negative - and their misuse certainly isn’t exciting - but it’s actually another plus on Bozak’s resume. His amazing ability on special teams has been completely forgone by St. Louis, meaning there’s plenty more for the centerman to offer up. If he gets the special teams time he deserves, the Blues could see a completely new side of the already talented center.
His year-by-year WAR graph doesn’t show much of note. While he did take a slight dip last season, he’s bounced back this year. Even if he hadn’t, his WAR set last year was still admirable; on par with many of his St. Louis bottom-six counterparts. But his step back up is, of course, welcome, as it sets him as one of the best one the Blues bottom-two lines.
Overall, this all accumulates in a market value of $6.17 million, just ever-so slightly above Steen’s $6 million value.
What This Means
Bozak’s offensive potency is below-average but his defense is rivaled with the league’s elite. It’s an incredibly admirable ability that he’s kept fairly secret, until his role in St. Louis demanded its emergence. With his special teams numbers speaking even higher praise to his ability, despite being untapped in St. Louis, dealing him away now would seemingly throw out the Blues new toy before all of its features could be seen.
But much like with Jake Allen, Bozak is saved by an admittedly shallow Blues depth, at least at his position. Bozak’s defense, penalty-kill reliability, and faceoff percentage (which has been good-not-great) brings together a seemingly perfect third-line center.
If Bozak left, the Blues would need to scramble to replace him. Of the current healthy scratches, only Jacob de La Rose would be able to take on a center role; assuming he gets a new contract this off-season to begin with. The AHL is similarly lacking in names to fill the role. While many will point to Klim Kostin, who has center experience, the forward has taken on a winger role in the last few years and would struggle to find his prior groove; much like Jordan Kyrou.
Oskar Sundqvist could - and in the case of Bozak’s departure, should - fill the role, as he’s spent much of his time on the wing recently, but he’s failed to find his groove in the arguably-easier winger position. Sticking him on the ever-important third-line center spot could be detrimental. That’s admittedly negative thinking, though, as Sundqvist has shown his best play when manning the middle. Still, it’s hard to say that his ability to play center makes it worthwhile to lose the perfectly-crafted centerman that is Bozak.
Ultimately, Bozak’s case is just as strong as that of Steen and Allen’s, even if he is the newest of the bunch. The decision facing the Blues this off-season is a GM’s worst nightmare and no matter what the choice is, there will be hurt feelings. With that said, it’ll also be very exciting to see Armstrong’s decisions!