October 16, 2009 :: 3:39pm ET
For Bozak and Leafs, the future should be now
By David Pagnotta
TheFourthPeriod.com

[TORONTO, ON] -- It might not have started the way he had originally anticipated, but Tyler Bozak still managed to do everything right in his first NHL game.

Bozak, 23, was called-up from the AHL Tuesday and played in his first NHL contest that night against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Regina, Saskatchewan native started the game for the Leafs, playing in between Anton Stalberg and Lee Stempniak, in front of 19,148 fans at the heated Air Canada Centre.

"It was definitely exciting to get out there and get my first game under my belt," said Bozak, who tossed the body, created scoring chances, blocked shots and jumped back to bail out his defensemen.

Off to a poor start to the 2009-10 campaign, the Maple Leafs decided to bench Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman, which led to Bozak getting his first crack at the NHL.

The Leafs, 0-5-1, sit last in the NHL, despite what appeared to be an extremely improved defensive corps.

Additions Mike Komisarek, Garnet Exelby and Francois Beauchemin have struggled in the early-part of the season. These three bruising blueliners were expected to give the Maple Leafs a serious upgrade in the back end.

Unfortunately, the defense has been poor, the team's goaltending has been shaky, and the offense isn't getting the job done, either.

So, what needs to be done?

Talk in the press box suggests the Leafs could be getting ready to waive goodbye to goaltender Vesa Toskala, who has posted a 5.56 goals-against-average and a .812 save percentage in four games this season.

After tweaking his knee earlier this week, the native of Tampere, Finland could use the week-long rest to regroup, or his days in Toronto could be over.

Toskala, 32, has been the subject of a variety of potential roster moves stemming from Leaf Land. With a cap hit of $4 million, Leafs GM Brian Burke could place Toskala on waivers hoping another team picks him up. If he clears, Toskala could spend the season in the AHL, saving the Leafs a large chunk of cap space.

Another option could revolve around veteran winger Jason Blake, whose cap hit is also $4 million.

Despite a productive season last year, where he picked up 25 goals and 63 points, Blake's name is continuously tossed around the rumor mill.

Blake doesn't seem to fit under the Leafs' new direction and Burke wouldn't mind freeing his team of another large contract.

With defenseman Mike Van Ryn to undergo extensive knee surgery, which will end his season, the Leafs will save his $2.9 million average salary from the going against cap. Waiving or trading Toskala and Blake will free up an additional $8 million, and all of a sudden the Leafs are well below the salary cap.

Easier said than done, I know, but management is trying to weigh out its options, and if they can find a taker for Toskala or Blake, they'll jump at the opportunity.

Ridding themselves of these two players not only saves them money, but it gives Bozak the chance to play full time in the NHL.

After an impressive debut in training camp, Bozak's "demotion" might have had something to do with his $3.725 million cap hit -- his actual salary is $875,000, but he has a variety of performances bonuses attached to his contract.

Nevertheless, Van Ryn's injury and the possible departure of Toskala, and/or Blake, gives the Leafs enough room to keep Bozak on the club, where he belongs.

Bozak, who was sent back to the AHL Wednesday to get more games under his belt, assisted on Toronto's only goal Tuesday, which came on the powerplay and off the stick of Beauchemin. He's already picked up his first professional point and should be able to generate more offensively when given the chance.

"It was definitely nice to get my first NHL point, it was something I've been waiting for my whole life," he said. "That was a proud moment for me and my family."

Bozak and Stalberg performed very well during pre-season. Once he's back up with the big club, expect these two to pick up where they left off.

"I think we play well and generate a lot of offense together," Stalberg said. "He's a great player, it's easy to play with him and he gives you the puck when you're in a good position to get it."

As much as Leafs fans want to see their team winning, it looks like it's going to be a very long season.

But this was supposed to be one of the building years, anyway, right?

Allowing Bozak to accustom himself to regular NHL ice-time can only benefit his development and the team's future, which fans should be able to look forward to.

Bozak, and injured forward Phil Kessel, were two of the team's big offensive additions this past summer.

Kessel will return to the ice next month and should see plenty of time on the Leafs' top line. Bozak, meanwhile, is a very solid two-way center, and early chemistry with Stalberg gives the Leafs two-thirds of a future second-line.

"Everyone's working hard and everyone wants to win," Bozak said. "That's the main goal, to win games."


David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period Magazine and covers the NHL for TheFourthPeriod.com. He is also a contributing writer for NBCSports.com and MSNBC.

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