With his three-point effort in Boston on Tuesday night during their 4-3 win, Tyler Bozak has recorded a point in 12 of his last 13 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs and is at a near point-per-game pace for the 2013-14 season.
He seems to be at the center of everything positive that is happening for the team right now. For a player who has only once topped 40 points in a single season during his career, it is a bit of a surprise to see him as such a central figure in the offense.
So why is this happening? And how much of a role is he actually playing in it?
Hockey players have a consistent and direct impact on the number of shots their team takes and allows with them on the ice. This is a skill that is repeatable and is easily visible when looking at shot totals and possession metrics.
It is also a skill they probably don't get enough credit for and one that is too often overlooked.
While a player can help control the number of shots his team takes, they don't always have much of an impact on how many of those shots -- or even which ones -- actually accomplish their main objective and go in the net (or stay out of the net, if you're looking at it from a defensive perspective). They often times get too much credit for their ability to impact which shots go in, which is why players with extremely high plus/minus totals can get showered with too much praise for their all-around game, while players at the other end of the spectrum are often too harshly criticized for perceived struggles in their own zone that may not really exist. It's also why guys with the highest shooting percentages sometimes get overvalued and overpaid in free agency.
Some players do have better shots than others in terms of both power and accuracy. Some players are better at finding the open areas in the offensive zone and putting themselves into a scoring position. A shot from Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos surely strikes more fear into a goaltender than a shot from Daniel Winnik or Tyler Kennedy. That's part of the reason why they score more often.
But it's not the only reason. The fact those guys are able to put themselves into a position where they can take four or five shots per game is just as big of a factor in their goal-scoring totals. That's the skill. That's the biggest part of scoring a goal.
But not every shot from a player like Ovechkin or Stamkos is a legitimate scoring chance. Some of those shots have virtually no chance of going in (even though they sometimes still find a way). Not every scoring chance ends up in the back of the net. Sometimes bodies get in the way, sometimes pucks miss the net or hit the post, and sometimes NHL goalies do what NHL goalies are known to do and make ridiculous saves.
And conversely, sometimes those same goalies just completely whiff on the puck and turn a bad-angle, low-percentage shot into a goal.
As a shooter, there is little you can do about that stuff. These are things that are often times out of the shooters control, and it's why players are prone to such hot and cold streaks over the course of a typical NHL season. It's why great goal-scorers like Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux can sometimes go 12 or 15 games without scoring, and why completely forgettable players can sometimes offer the impression that they are carrying an offense.
It is also why shot volume matters so much, and the more shots you can create, the better.
Bozak is an interesting player. He turns 28 in a couple of months, so he has probably already reached his peak level of performance in the NHL. Seeing as how he's never topped even 50 points in a single season and only once topped 40, that's probably not an encouraging sign for his future years. That, however, didn't stop the Maple Leafs from giving him a five-year, $21 million contract extension over the summer to prevent him from hitting the unrestricted free agent market.
Still, for whatever skill he has as an NHL player, it seems that the best thing anybody in Toronto can say about him, and the biggest justification that can be made for his contract, is that he is Phil Kessel's buddy. And the two seem to play well together on the ice (which is true, even if it is Kessel that's sitting in the driver's seat most of the time).
Of course there is some value to that, but whether the price tag on it should be more than $4 million per year is up for debate.
But what's the story behind his most recent success? Well for starters, a lot of comes down to some luck, and a lot of comes down to circumstance and being in the right place at the right time with the right players. Everything is going in the net with him on the ice, and he's riding a huge wave of percentages despite the fact the Leafs are giving up far more shot attempts than they're taking (201 to 251). That's bad. On a team level, the Maple Leafs have experienced what happens when you rely on percentages to win while getting badly outshot ever night.
It works on an individual level as well.
In his last 13 games, a stretch that's seen Bozak tally 16 total points, the Maple Leafs have scored 16 goals with Bozak on the ice during 5-on-5 play. They've done this while recording just 112 shots on goal, which results in an on-ice shooting percentage of 14.2, a ridiculously high number that no player can realistically hope to maintain for an extended period of time. Since the start of the 2007-08 season only four players have appeared in at least 40 games and finished with an on-ice shooting percentage higher than 14 percent (Nazem Kadri and Mark Fraser last year, Darryl Boyce in 2011-12, and Daniel Sedin in 2009-10).
But is Bozak really doing anything to drive such a high percentage? Probably not. If you go back and look at the pucks that have gone in the net with him on the ice, there is a lot of wild stuff happening. Two of the goals Bozak himself scored came on deflections in front of the net. Being able to deflect a shot is a skill, but sometimes whether or not that shot actually goes in is luck. Often times, an inch or two higher or lower and a goal turns into a shot off the post or a shot that goes into a goalies glove instead of the night.
Two more came on plays where opposing goaltenders were down and out of position (Tuukka Rask on one goal Tuesday, and a recent goal against Cory Schneider). Another came on a play where Pittsburgh's Jeff Zatkoff misplayed a long-distance shot that trickled behind, and Bozak was able to swoop in and tap it across the line.
It's the perfect combination of skill, luck and talented line mates helping to create a torrid scoring streak.
This is the type of stuff that drives shooting percentages, and it's not always repeatable, whether it be over a two-week segment of a season or the entire year.
Just consider this: Last season, the top 10 forwards in the NHL in shooting percentage (minimum 100 shots) combined to score on 19 percent of their shots on goal. The bottom 10 forwards combined to score on just 6 percent. This season, the same 10 players at the top of the NHL are scoring on 13 percent of their shots. And the same players from the bottom 10 group? They are also scoring on 13 percent of their shots. That means that right now the "worst" shooters in the league last season are shooting at the same level as the "best" shooters, as a group.
Did the top guys suddenly forget how to score? Did the bottom guys find the magic spot on the ice? Nope. It just means that percentages wildly fluctuate all over the place, and the best way to keep scoring goals is to keep putting yourself in a position to get a shot. That's more than half of the battle.
Even though it sounds like it, this isn't meant to be a call out of Tyler Bozak. It's just an example as to how in every season, just about every player that gets meaningful playing time is prone to hot and cold streaks.
It sounds too simplistic, but sometimes the puck just goes in the net for you. And sometimes it doesn't.